D.C. Mayor Vincent Gray (D) joins Kojo, Tom Sherwood and Mike DeBonis in the studio.
Three months after the federal budget cuts known as the sequester took effect, some say the exercise has proved relatively painless, with furloughs scaled back and agencies like the FAA and USDA getting reprieves. But others insist programs like Meals on Wheels and Head Start that serve the most needy are taking damaging hits. We examine the sequester’s local impact and explore how the budget cuts will continue to unfold.
- Donald Kettl Dean, School of Public Policy, University of Maryland; nonresident senior fellow, Brookings Institution
- Elizabeth Williamson Reporter, The Wall Street Journal
MR. KOJO NNAMDIThe headline seemed to tell a tale of two sequesters. One reads, "Big Or Small, Sequestration Cuts Felt Nationwide." Another proclaims, "Sequester 'Armageddon' Has Been President Obama's Y2K."
MR. KOJO NNAMDIThree months after the across-the-board budget cuts, cutting 85 billion in federal spending went into effect, we've seen exceptions made to keep air traffic controllers and meat inspectors on the job, services shuttered in some national parks, fewer furloughs than expected in some agencies and cuts to programs like Meals on Wheels and Head Start that help seniors and kids in need in some communities.
MR. KOJO NNAMDIAll of which has us wondering how the sequester if affecting you and whether the forecast for those who are affected from here on out is looking any sunnier. Here to talk about what has and has not happened because of the cut so far is Elizabeth Williamson. She is a reporter for The Wall Street Journal based in Washington, who has been covering the sequester and its effects. Elizabeth, thank you for joining us.
MS. ELIZABETH WILLIAMSONNice to be here, Kojo.
NNAMDIAnd Don Kettl is still with us. He is the dean of the School of Public Policy at the University of Maryland and a nonresident senior fellow at the Brookings Institution. We're taking your calls at 800-433-8850. You can send email to email@example.com if you'd like to tell us how the sequester is affecting you personally or what changes you've noticed locally in parks or government offices. That number again, 800-433-8850.
NNAMDIA little over three months in, we still seem to be grappling with the question of what exactly the sequester means. Don, some coverage takes an all-bark-and-no-bite approach while other stories zero in on individuals and agencies that have taken hard hits. What's the reality?
MR. DONALD KETTLThe reality is that this was, as it was always going to be, a kind of slow-motion crisis. The administration really badly overplayed its hand by suggesting Armageddon was going to happen on March 2. But we saw very quickly when the air traffic control system started to clog, where they needed exemption for the meat inspectors, that on those areas where the federal government has a very high percentage of its effort that is -- comes through personnel -- and actually, real people out there doing real things like air traffic control, the effects were pretty big and pretty serious.
MR. DONALD KETTLBut on a lot of other areas, it turned out that the federal government turned out to be a lot more flexible in allocating those costs. And that tended to, at the very least, push the cuts further down the road. And in some cases, the federal government discovered that it could make do with a little bit less than what everybody had counted on the beginning. But the administration really badly overplayed its hand by suggesting catastrophe was going to happen immediately.
NNAMDIElizabeth, since this is such a vast issue with lots of nuances, lots of facets, I wonder if you found it challenging to try to strike a balance between the silver linings and the doom and gloom in your coverage.
WILLIAMSONCovering the sequester, Kojo, is a nightmare, an absolute nightmare because there's good news and there's good political news. So the good news would be that the federal government is very flexible and that they are able to make cuts to other programs, things like travel or office expenses and spare people's jobs. But that narrative doesn't really suit the administration.
WILLIAMSONSo then you end up every time you write something, you have the White House calling you and telling you, "Well, wait a minute. You didn't look at what might happen here." So what we've tried to do what journalist focus on what's actually happening, people who have lost their jobs or their projects or their budget and some portion thereof and not cover what might happen. That's one way to square the circle, but it is rough.
NNAMDIWell, you began to talk about this already, so you might as well continue because on the buildup to the sequester, they were allegations that agencies were overstating the impact that these cuts would have. Some of that turned out to be well-founded, others, well, less so. But you know that it's important not to lose sight of the political theater at play here.
WILLIAMSONYeah. I mean, the sequester has been an active political theater from the beginning. It was devised by the administration as something that was a kind of doomsday scenario that, you know, we'd force people to the table by threatening this 5 percent across the board, series of cuts that would last eight years.
WILLIAMSONAnd that'll never happen. We'll all negotiate. That'll be sort of the zero option, you know, the nuclear option. But what's actually happened is that it happened because the gridlock is so horrible -- conference in the White House are so much at odds that, to everybody's dismay, sequester ended up kicking in March 1.
NNAMDIWell, what is the political theater at play now, Don Kettl?
KETTLWe're intermission right now. We're between acts. And it's, quite frankly, a play or production that nobody wants to go into the next act of. At this point, what really seems clear is that both sides, Republicans and Democrats, have calculated that there's not percentage in being able to fight this through. The economy is improved just enough to take the truly gruesome deficit figures off the table. The deficits are actually improving. The long term prospects for Social Security and Medicare are just a little bit better than they seemed to be before.
KETTLSo the Republicans and Democrats both seemed to have agreed for now that the best agreement is not to try to force any further compromise, which, of course, just kicks this big problem further and further down the road. So we've got theater where both sides have decided that they're not going to get much further, and there's not much point in going any further in kind of big production on this right now. So it's intermission.
WILLIAMSONIt's funny because I wanted to be very, very up to date when I came here this morning. And so I emailed my colleague, David Wessel, who is frequently on here, our economy guru. And I said, so, David, I just want to make sure there's no move, not even, you know, the most minute move in the direction of compromise or something on the sequester. And I got a one word email back, No.
WILLIAMSONSo nothing doing.
NNAMDIBut what are the likely political implications for both parties if this continues to hang on as it seems to?
WILLIAMSONWell, I would think that, you know, as we said earlier on, this could last eight years. Nobody really expects that to happen, that they'll reach some sort of a broader fiscal agreement that will make the sequester a thing of the past, the sort of, you know, shimmer that went away.
WILLIAMSONBut, you know, right now all the economic models, all the analysts are sort of predicting that any impacts from this will last through December, and that hopefully, god willing, there will be some sort of, you know, agreement that will knock the sequester out as a talking point and as a reality. But no one really knows what will happen at this moment.
NNAMDII guess it will take divine intervention. Elizabeth Williamson is a reporter from The Wall Street Journal, based here in Washington. She's been covering the sequester and its effect. She's joins us in studio along with Don Kettl. He is dean of the School of Public Policy at the University of Maryland, and he's a non-resident, senior fellow at the Brookings Institution.
NNAMDIIf you have called already, stay on the line. We'll get to your calls. If you haven't yet, the number is 800-433-8850. If you work for a federal agency, what has morale been likely at the office? Or are you or someone in your family facing a furlough? 800-433-8850. Exemptions have become the norm for some agencies. What if any criteria had have been established for providing exemptions, and doesn't granting them sort of miss the point of this whole exercise? First to you, Elizabeth.
WILLIAMSONYes, that's another thing that underscores how political an issue this sequester is. As soon as something comes up that creates a political human cry or as soon as constituents start calling their members of about something that's happening like a flight delay...
WILLIAMSON...that then there's an exception granted. People got up in arms, as you mentioned earlier, about food inspection procedures. And who will be the inspectors? Are they being furloughed? That's crazy. Who will look at meat and hotdogs and things we feed out children? And then all of a sudden, they were exempted.
WILLIAMSONI mean, the Department of Justice, Eric Holder made a very convincing case that 2,300 people would be laid off and that things -- everything from tracking sexual assault, suspects to FBI investigations would be endangered by this. Nobody -- repeat, nobody hasn't been laid off for this sequester.
NNAMDIDon Kettl, same question to you, exemptions.
KETTLExemptions. Exemptions really become the kind of new pork in the federal budgeting. We said that what we're going to do is we're not going to do pork barrel politics anymore. No more special interest, but now, special interests are the people who can make the wheel squeak loudest to make sure they'd get an exemption for their programs and their people.
KETTLAnd meat inspectors -- well, for all the reasons Elizabeth pointed up, there's no way we're going to take a chance on putting the meat business into delay, have a downturn 'cause among other things, it affects a lot of Republican districts. Air traffic control affects just about everybody's districts as well as every member of congress who wants to get on a plane to go back home at the end of the week.
NNAMDIWhich is just about everyone, yes?
KETTLExactly right. So, with the exception of a few people who get a chance to get in the car and drive around town here, that affects everybody. So the exemption business has become the new pork in the federal budget process, and that's likely to continue because even those who provide hopes that, well, maybe in October, maybe at the end of the year, we'll get some kind of new budget deal.
KETTLAt this point, the odds of anything don't seem very good. And so we're going to be carving exemptions out. We'll be back a kind of new style of budgetary politics that it's not going to be any prettier than the old one.
NNAMDIIf you got juice in Washington, you can get an exception.
WILLIAMSONAbsolutely. Well, a great case in point, Kojo, is the seniors, you know, they had said that the Social Security Administration would be cutting a lot of jobs. They thought they would lose 6,500 full-time and temporary workers, but so far, that number is about 180. So -- and that's because in part, you have seniors up in arms who will process checks, who'll be waiting for will there be errors, that sort of thing. And so, yeah, the exemption business is really booming.
NNAMDIAnd seniors, of course, vote. So here is John...
WILLIAMSONYou got it.
NNAMDI...in Bowie, Md. John, you're on the air. Go ahead please.
JOHNGood afternoon, Kojo. I find it absolutely appalling that as we're sitting here evaluating how the sequestration is affecting America, that so many people of -- I'm a -- for disclosure here, I'm a registered Republican -- how many of my Republican representatives, congressmen are up there gleefully fighting for money to be spent in foreign lands, such as Syria, in Egypt, and are up there with righteousness and wanting to get funding for foreign lands.
JOHNMeanwhile, we're cutting off here at home. The first thing that should've happened with sequestration was also ceasing of all funds going overseas and going back to the priority and the people that they were elected to serve.
NNAMDIWell, I suspect, Don Kettl, if we made that the priority, then we would have to reveal that we spend less than 1 percent of our federal budget or our national budget on foreign aid. So cutting foreign aid would probably not have made a significant impression.
KETTLIt would barely even be a hiccup. Certainly, not enough even to take account of air traffic control or the meat inspectors. You know, what's amazing about this is that if you go out and do a public opinion poll of Americans and ask them, how much money do you think we spend on foreign aid, they vastly overestimate it. If you ask them how much they think that we should spend of foreign aid, it's usually two or three or four times about what we actually do spend.
KETTLSo there's a real mismatch of what it is the people think and what actually happens. And we get back to the same old argument time after time that we have to go where the money is if we're going to try to make the cuts. And going where the money is means making cuts we don't want to make, which is one of the reasons why the budget balancing business has turned out to be so difficult.
NNAMDIWell, I guess, John would say a lot of the money is in our defense budget if we happened to intervene in Syria or any place else. That's where it comes out of. How has defense been affected by this as far as you've been following, Elizabeth?
WILLIAMSONYou know, not -- again, not as severely as was originally predicted. The Defense Department had said, you know, they were originally sort of targeted as the ones who would suffer the most. There have been fewer furloughs than anybody imagined, and, you know, this is a contracting issue, too. But something that Don and I were talking about earlier is the idea that there is a lot of internal chaos created that does not appear in the numbers themselves.
WILLIAMSONWhen you have something like sequestration, the fiscal cliff, the continuing resolution, any budget related battle because people don't know -- in a federal agency that relies on contractors, they don't know whether to let a contract, they don't know whether to propose a new project, they don't know whether to engage in a new research, you know, embark on new research. So you have that internal chaos that few people see but cost a lot of money in the end.
NNAMDIThank you for your call, Mike. We move on to -- oh, John, that was. We now move on to Mike in Fairfax, Va. Mike, your turn.
MIKEHey, Kojo. I love your show. I just want to comment real quick. I mean, one of the problems that we're currently having is that, you know, a lot of money that was taken, you know, that is allowing us not to furlough this year was taken from prior budgets to move around, everything like that. My agency is currently telling me that we should prepare for as much as, you know, one day furlough next fiscal year, everything along those line, which is the equivalent of losing about one-twelfth of my paycheck.
MIKEI mean, I'll be perfectly honest, I, you know, I've been in the region now for, you know, I moved here and -- or I was forced transferred here in '06, you know, about $100,000 upside down on the house that I bought. I'm about to lose one-twelfth of my pay, you know, but at the same time, you know, I travel abroad and, you know, on behalf of the United States government, you know, I've been away from my wife for about four out of the last, you know, last eight years and...
NNAMDIAnd obviously, you feel this is unfair.
MIKEWell, the problem I have was, you know, both me and a lot of my compatriots, we feel like we're underappreciated by the citizenry. I mean, everybody keeps on saying about how large and robust United States government is, about how that, you know, that we're over-bloated and we don't do enough work...
NNAMDIWell, I can't tell you how many shows we have had here with the partnership for public policy about U.S. federal employees and the kind of work they do. So you are appreciated in some quarters, Mike. Unfortunately, you and others have found yourself in the middle of a political battle over which you have no control. Elizabeth, when you're out talking to people, people like Mike, about what they're seeing within their agency or their business so far, do you get a sense that they think they're sort of out of the woods or, like Mike, that they expect more to come?
WILLIAMSONI think that's the uncertainty that we were discussing earlier and the impact that it has on folks. I mean, you don't even know whether to plan a vacation if you're not sure whether you're going to be furloughed if not this year, perhaps next year. So I do think, you know, there's a lot of uncertainty, a lot of worry about what this actually means, and the very nature of this program just fuels that.
NNAMDIDon, there does seem to have been a cross agency to focus on saving jobs, reducing furloughs, perhaps an obvious move in the short term, but that means cutting elsewhere, cutting on hours, on maintenance, on materials. Is that necessarily the smartest strategy in the long run?
KETTLWell, that's the thing that's worst about this in so many ways because it focuses all the attention on decisions that save enough money in the very, very, very short run to be able to save jobs again in the short run. What it doesn't get to is how we can try to make government work efficiently in the longer run. And we can't plan, we can't do the long-term procurement, we can't figure out how much maintenance to do, we can't figure out how much -- how best to try to balance over time.
KETTLAnd most importantly, in so many places, we can't figure out how to hire new people in with the right kind of skills to get the job done. So the risk is that we're increasing inefficiency inside the government as the very same time we're squeezing all these short-term decisions out, something to try to avoid triggering even higher furloughs and other kinds of big problems in this round of sequestration. That's the, in many ways, the biggest problem of all.
WILLIAMSONExacerbating that sort of lack of movement on that. That damaging impact that Don's referring to is, of course, the idea that now the federal deficit has begun to fall, and there's -- there is no fire lit under members of Congress to try and do something on the broad fiscal picture. What will federal spending look like 10, 20, 50 years into the future? What should we cut? What's wise? What's prudent?
WILLIAMSONThat discussion isn't happening anymore. It was beginning when our deficit was higher. But now, given the fact that there's been a somewhat spotty take on sequestration, plus the fact that our deficit is not as bad as anyone thought, just leads to that inaction that really sort of makes long-term solutions disappear.
NNAMDIOn to Jim in Washington. Jim, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.
JIMHey. I had two comments I'd like to get your panel to answer. One is, wasn't -- in lieu of furloughs, wasn't just deducting some leaves or earned time off, wouldn't that be more productive? And then, second, furloughs seem to be a short-term answer, I mean, to get money right away. But I would imagine it's very -- still productive in the long haul just to meet some magnified cost in the future down the road. I was wondering if they had any plan to address those issues.
NNAMDIFirst you, Don Kettl.
KETTLThe question on using leaves and other kinds I think is a great question. But the problem is that the way the law is written, we need real, hard cash on the table, and so that the imperative in the law is to have strategies that reduce the amount of government spending. And so you can't reduce the amount of government spending by not paying leaves that otherwise you wouldn't have paid. You really need to reduce the outlays. And for agencies that have a big share of their spending in government employees, then the way to do that is by reducing the salaries that the government employees get.
WILLIAMSONOr open positions. Open positions, rather than leave, has been the sort of stopgap solution, eliminating positions that were previously approved but not filled, or cutting force through attrition. That's been -- those have been two key ways that people have escaped some of the furloughs that were expected. As well, there have been things like travel and research budgets that have been cut.
NNAMDIJim, thank you very much for your call. We're going to take a short break, but you can still call 'cause we'll be coming back to this conversation. The number is 800-433-8850. Are you concerned about the way in which exemptions to the sequester are being made? You can also send email to us at kojoshow -- or email firstname.lastname@example.org, or send us a tweet, @kojoshow, or simply go to our website, kojoshow.org, and ask a question or make a comment there. I'm Kojo Nnamdi.
NNAMDIWelcome back. We're talking about the sequester and the effect that it is or is not having. Our guests are Elizabeth Williamson. She's a reporter for The Wall Street Journal. She's been covering the sequester and its effects. Donald Kettl is dean of the School of Public Policy at the University of Maryland and a nonresident senior fellow at The Brookings Institution.
NNAMDIElizabeth, we got an email from Marcy in D.C., who couldn't stay on the phone, but wonders if we're putting too much focus on the issue of furloughs and not enough on how this is affecting the poor. You had a recent front page story about D.C.'s so-called new gilded age that features millionaires racing Aston Martins and couples building 40,000-square-foot homes.
NNAMDIYou've also talked with people who run a head start program in Baltimore about the cuts they're making in an effort to spare services. To what extent -- with apologies to Charles Dickens -- are we seeing a sort of tale of two cities play out across this region?
WILLIAMSONThat is absolutely true, and that was one reason why I decided to go to Baltimore to report that story. I wanted to see what was happening outside the Beltway, in a city that is beset by a lot of difficulties. You know, the head start program there, they have not -- I checked up with them. I think I did that story a couple of months ago. I checked up with them recently, and they were able to escape having to cut slots from the program so that they could keep all their children being served through the end of the school year.
WILLIAMSONThey did cut one position. They cut a couple of open positions. So that was a relief. But, you know, you come down the road, as they say, and D.C. is just a totally different ballgame. I mean, the median household income here, according to 2010 census, is $84,523. Here, we have, you know, the so-called 1 percent. It's 13 percent here. Thirteen percent of households earn more than $200,000 a year.
WILLIAMSONA lot of that is fueled by federal contracting and the types of things that might be affected by the sequester. There are also a lot of federal employees in that mix because they start to reach the top of the GS scale, and they make more money, the senior executive service. But basically, you know, there's a kind of sense that people aren't touched partly because they're moving away from a dependence on federal contracting in the local economy here.
NNAMDIDon Kettl, do stories about the sequester in some ways highlight the division between Washington as the seat of our government and the District of Columbia as a city where people live?
KETTLIt really does in two respects. One is that when we talk about Washington, of course, there's the Washington that those of us who live around here know and love, but there's the Washington that most of the rest of the country thinks about, which has to do with the power of government, the sense of distance, money being wasted, IRS conventions, some people doing line dances.
KETTLAnd it's that distance that really increasingly makes it difficult to have an intelligent conversation about this, but also to have an intelligent conversation about the effect of all of this on our region and, in particular, on the city of Washington itself, which still struggles and often doesn't benefit from the increase in jobs and incomes that increasingly are happening in the suburban counties that lie outside of the city district, of the District of Columbia itself.
NNAMDII knew that line dance video would stick. Here is Sandy...
KETTLIt's not going to go away.
NNAMDIHere is Sandy in Falls Church, Va. Sandy, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.
SANDYGreat show. Thank you, Kojo. I just wanted to echo and amplify an earlier caller's point about being a federal worker. And by amplify I mean it feels like the American public and Congress have declared war on the federal worker. Being one myself, I can't go into great detail, but to say my public-facing program has had zero spending allowed for months. And now people are looking at us and saying, well, what do you do for a living? Do we even need your job? And...
NNAMDIYou know -- go ahead, please.
SANDYAnd then I look at some of the groundwork that people are using for rationalization on this, like the Cato Institute studies where they say that the general economy job base makes much less than the federal worker. They're throwing service workers into that study. They're throwing burger flippers. No disrespect intended. I mean, we're talking about people with college degrees and sometimes graduate degrees at GS-7 and -9 levels
NNAMDIWell, Sandy, let me share with you an email we got from Lois or a part of it. Lois writes, "My husband is a government employee in good standing who is doing work he is highly trained for. I always believe that there was a tradeoff with government work, not so much money but a lot more job security. We decided together that I would stop work and stay home once we had children. Suddenly, this spring, we were threatened with losing 20 percent of our one income.
NNAMDI"I feel doubly vulnerable as an unemployed mom. And it pains me to listen to so many people effectively spit in the face of government employees as if they were all lazy, incompetent leeches. So the financial impact isn't as great as was threatened yet, but I am deeply bitter," writes Lois. Do you really think this is any way to attract the best or brightest into public service? What would you say to Lois, Don Kettl?
KETTLI mean, that's business. And I spend a good chunk of my time both trying to attract and train and then place people. And there is good news so far at least in that in terms of applications, the number of students starting. At our program at University of Maryland School of Public Policy next fall, we haven't seen any decline in numbers or quality yet. But the problem on the other end is trying to find ways replacing students when they complete the program and graduate.
KETTLBecause as long as agencies are trying to avoid laying off current employees by keeping vacancies out there vacant, then that much -- is that much harder to try to place people, and then it pushes more people out in the contract to work for us into private sector. And in the longer run, it could have really serious implications for our ability to be able to manage government well. And it's the longer-term implications about making sure the government operates effectively, then in many ways it could be the biggest casualty of this.
WILLIAMSONThere's another interesting trend inside the federal government workforce that Stephen Fuller, who heads George Mason University Center on the Regional Economy, told me about. And what he was saying was that you have that whole cadre of workers that entered the workforce right after John Kennedy urged Americans to say, you know, to ask what they could do for their country. People were inspired by that speech. A wave of baby boomers came into the federal government.
WILLIAMSONThey reached the top of the federal pay hierarchy. They're earning about $90,000 a year now in average. They're doing quite well for themselves, but they're beginning to retire. So they're being replaced by cheaper workers and by contractors. So you're starting to see this downward pressure on federal wages and federal employment that really hits hard in this regional economy where 40 percent of the economy is reliant on federal spending.
NNAMDISandy, thank you very much for your call. We move on now to Rick in Arlington, Va. Rick, your turn.
RICKHi, Kojo. I haven't talk to you in years. Really, my comment is more on the impact of the sequestration on biomedical research. And the cuts -- not just NIH cuts but the university placed research cuts that are really -- have really set us very much back in terms of our world position on biomedical research, particularly small firms and research-based entity. The atomic projections are -- the loss of jobs is one thing.
RICKBut then we also are -- we have to include in that the loss of our ability to compete internationally in terms of biometric and biomedical research. And it's just -- the reason for it to me is political. And then the effect of it, of course, is that patients who need rounds of therapy that don't exist won't get them, and how do you put a number on that, a dollar figure?
NNAMDIThere is concern about how this will affect biomedical research, Elizabeth Williamson.
WILLIAMSONYeah, there is. I mean, the NIH we talked about a little bit when we were off the air...
NNAMDIIn the break, yes.
WILLIAMSONYeah, exactly, that was one of the sort of foster children for potential victims of sequestration that research budgets would be cut. I do know over there that travel to various conferences where a lot of these breakthroughs are spoken about and discussed in advanced has ended. And so, you know, it's hard to gauge exactly what's going on because you see more grants going out in some instances than you see these other things cuts. So again, that's all part of the chaos that we were discussing earlier.
NNAMDII was mentioning in the break, I have a son who is involved in biomedical research. And I sure don't need him become independent on me again ever.
NNAMDICare to comment on that biomedical research problem?
KETTLSure. 'Cause one -- this really reflects a broader kind of issue. We're just terrible about having a national discussion and debate about what it is that we really want to do, what are our priorities, and how much money should we spend. We're just not good at that. What we're in the middle of now is a kind of moldy stage process of trying to work that through as best we can.
KETTLWe have the kind of short term, let's just try to find a way through these cuts by any way that we can. Then there is the kind of next stage that's going to be -- we're going to have a little bit more in some things, a little bit less than others. But audibly, we're going to have to reach the question about how much we really want to invest in things like my medical research.
NNAMDIYeah. We got two emails from MJ and Donna asking about that, and whether or not we can recover from shutting down research and medical and other scientific fields.
KETTLAnd my sense is so far. And I sit in the middle of a major biomedical research area at University of Maryland in College Park. We do an awful lot of research. And the early stages were, wow, this is going to be just awful, and the impact in our research in the short term is going to be catastrophic. And it turned out to be, well, as with everything else, not quite so bad, but everybody is really worried about what's going to happen with the projects that are underway.
KETTLWould they be able to finish them? Will be -- they'll be able to get the next grants? Will they be able to train the next generation of researchers? And it's that medium and long-term set of questions that are by far now the most serious and that were least able in so many ways to be able to really confront well.
NNAMDIRick, thank you very much for your call. Here is Ed in Richmond, Va. Ed, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.
EDThank you, Kojo. And thanks for putting good conversation on your program. I guess my question is in a counterintuitive way. If fiscal crisis created parties drawing lines in the sand, does the improving economy and lowering debts create some opportunity? Why -- instead of taking a time out, why not use the flexibility that's created by the improving economy to identify some places where a bargain can be constructed given Social Security or Medicare or in the tax (unintelligible).
NNAMDIWe get back to the major political questions, Elizabeth Williamson.
WILLIAMSONYeah. And it's kind of reminding of that tortoise and the scorpion story, you know. It's just my nature on Congress. I just fight. That's what I do.
WILLIAMSONSo, yeah, I think that, you know, one would think, logically speaking, that this sort of easing of the situation would promote dialogue, but it does not. I mean, what -- there are two things that motivate Congress, the crisis and the smell of jet fuel. So there is some hope that, as they try to head out for vacation in August that they'll try and craft something that they can point to when they got back to their home districts for the summer. But they're usually motivated by a crisis rather than a lull.
NNAMDIThat's the time when they city becomes a ghost town. Don Kettl...
NNAMDI..is it likely as Elizabeth suggest that we'll see a buildup of momentum for action to end the sequester any time soon, or is this something politicians have loss the will to act on?
KETTLI mean, hope springs eternal, but it's never a good thing to bet against cynicism in this town unfortunately. And the fact that the fuel is being taken out of the crisis is making it that much harder for anybody to try to move to a decision at this point. And unless something really fundamental happens in an incredible act of statesmanship, the most likely outcome is that we're going to continue to drift along, drift along until maybe we get to the point of having to deal with the federal debt. And the possibility that that becomes a crisis could be a galvanizing force, but the odds don't seem great at this point.
NNAMDIThank you very much for your call. Donald Kettl is dean of the School of Public Policy at the University of Maryland. He is a non-resident senior fellow at the Brookings Institution. Don, thank you so much for joining us.
KETTLGreat to be with you, Kojo.
NNAMDIElizabeth Williamson is a reporter for The Wall Street Journal based here on Washington. She's been covering the sequester and its effects. Elizabeth, thank you for coming in.
WILLIAMSONMy pleasure, Kojo.
NNAMDIAnd thank you all for listening. I'm Kojo Nnamdi.
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