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DN Editorial: Sequester talk is just Congress acting like children

WITH JUST one day until their self-imposed sequestration deadline kicks in, Washington lawmakers have resolved to hold their breath until they turn blue in the face.

WITH JUST one day until their self-imposed sequestration deadline kicks in, Washington lawmakers have resolved to hold their breath until they turn blue in the face.

The sequestration agreement they locked themselves into a year ago is poised to start hacking an $85 billion hole in the federal budget. As their robo-knife threatens programs neither side wants to cut, the people we elected to handle our business in Washington declare themselves at an impasse.

Depending on whom you believe, this is either Apocalypse Now or just another full-throated chorus from the little boy who cried wolf. The president, just back from a multistate "Chicken Little" tour, has invoked every ominous possibility from threats to national security to the wholesale disruption of air travel. Congressional Republicans say it's all just a scare tactic, even though they can't actually say what the impact will be of this $85 billion cut or the even-larger cuts slated for later this year if they don't reach a comprehensive budget deal first.

Meanwhile, as the rest of us sort out these dueling narratives, some 500 arguably-above-average adults won't lift a hand except to point fingers at each other. As if this is not enough, two other artificial deadlines are looming in this series of manufactured crises.

Sequestration tango may look like a new dance to casual observers of the Washington scene. But sports fans have seen it all before, because sequestration is to Washington lawmakers what salary caps are to the owners of professional sports teams - a cry for help from people who can't make themselves stop spending. Instead, they set an artificial deadline, make arbitrary cuts and blame each other for not doing the hard work to produce a lasting solution to a predictable problem.

This impasse masks some real philosophical differences between the two sides on the role of the federal government and the size of the government. The president's view is that there needs to be a balanced approach to cutting the deficit, including revenue enhancements and spending cuts. Ultimately, both sides know they will adopt a spending plan and long-range budget measures that will include both. There has been bipartisan agreement in secret sessions on a number of ways to cut entitlement spending and to close tax loopholes - enough to cut more than $1 trillion from the deficit over the next 10 years.

But the childish standoff over first the so-called fiscal cliff, then the debt ceiling and whatever other line they decide to draw in the sand is really about who gets what when. Republicans say they won't budge on the president's call for increased revenues for investments in education and infrastructure and energy innovation until Democrats agree to drastic deficit reductions and tax cuts.

These are issues worth fighting about. But at the end of the day, this will end with a compromise. Sequestration has another meaning in the real world. It's how judges lock juries away until they complete their deliberations.

And that - locking them in a room until Congress completes its deliberations - is the kind of sequestration we need right now.