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April 19, 2014

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Sequester for dummies

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You’ve been having a tough year, Concerned Citizen. You keep waiting for Congress to take up immigration or guns — something you have an opinion about. All you get are arcane budget fights. Unless you live in the Beltway, it’s hard to build a dinner party around sequestration gossip.

But here we are. Sequester, sequester, sequester. Coming March 1. Ask me anything:

Did you know one of the most popular TV shows in Norway was about firewood? Maybe you should have this discussion with a Norwegian.

According to Sarah Lyall of The New York Times, the book “Solid Wood: All About Chopping, Drying and Stacking Wood — and the Soul of Wood-Burning” was on the Norwegian best-seller list for more than a year. I admit that a Norway dinner party sounds like a really tough lift. And to anticipate your next question, the jury is out on whether the bark should face up or down.

But about the sequester ...

Is this the “fiscal cliff” where they shut the government down? Because if it isn’t, I want to wait for that one.

This is the cliff before the one where they shut the government down. You really need to keep this stuff on a calendar. If the standoff in Washington continues, at the end of March, the government will run out of money and families will have to cancel their vacations because the federal parks will be shuttered. The sequester kicks in next week and simply imposes large, irrationally targeted budget cuts. So the parks will probably stay open, but they’ll lay off the grizzly bear containment warden.

You’re making up the grizzly bear part.

There reportedly is a projected cut in bear-incident-reduction at Yosemite. Also, some bad news for protecting the piping plovers in Michigan. And do not count on finding a comfort station on the scenic route from Natchez to Nashville.

There are much more dramatic possibilities if the sequester sticks over the long run; we’re talking $85 billion in cuts over seven months, and about $1.2 trillion over the next decade. But let’s focus on the first wave. They’re across-the-board reductions, with every little agency piece getting a whack. So your opinion about them should depend on whether you think government generally does useful things with its money.

I certainly don’t want them to hurt the piping plover.

Cute little birds and animals always get sympathy. If the head of the National Institutes of Health was a kitten, scientific research would probably have made the protected-programs list.

Why would they cut scientific research? That’s crazy. The federal budget is almost $4 trillion. Why can’t they just cut out the most useless stuff?

Because this was supposed to be a trigger so dreadful and dire and stupid that Congress would force itself to come up with a reasonable deficit reduction plan to avoid it. Ha. Ha.

So let them change the rules and tell the agencies to just cut the least important programs.

Uselessness is in the eye of the beholder. The Pentagon looks at some of its ships and planes and sees aging maintenance nightmares we don’t need. However, Congress thinks they might come in handy. Debates over the defense budget can sound a little bit like a clip from “Hoarders.” Don’t touch that cruiser! I might want to fix it up and give it to the grandkids!

Actually, I think this is a bad time to cut anything. The people keeping those boats welded together need jobs, too. We should wait until the economy picks up.

Perfectly rational thought, but remember these sequester cuts are on an automatic trigger. To avert it, you have to come up with an alternative that’s acceptable to Republicans in the House of Representatives — possibly the only people in the country who would prefer furloughing air traffic controllers to a minimum tax on millionaires.

OK, what if you just told the agencies to give Congress some plans on making things more efficient?

President Barack Obama has been trying, with no success whatsoever, to just get Congress to promise an up-or-down vote on his plans to eliminate duplication and inefficiency in the Commerce Department. He’s actually made several speeches about it, noting the multitudinous different government entities that share responsibility for regulating salmon.

Salmon?

I brought that one up because I know how much you like critters.

I miss the presidential elections and making fun of Mitt Romney’s dog.

We’ll get to the 2016 race soon. Just this week I tripped over a news report from South Dakota that began: Sen. John Thune, the third-ranking Republican in his chamber, told a group of second-graders that he does not plan on running for president.

Meanwhile, we’ve only got this stupid cliff. What’s the first bad thing that will happen?

My money’s on the airports. So very, very easy to make life miserable at airports.

Gail Collins is a columnist for The New York Times.

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  1. The best thing, not the worst, that Americans can hope for is that after March 1, the sequester will have absolutely no impact on the country.

    The government running out of money on March 27, if the Continuing Resolution is not extended, and the debt ceiling expiration on May 1 are other and different stories. These will have negative effects. The problem is that most Americans including our fearless leaders can't distinguish which is responsible for what. It is all a blur to them and us.

    So, get ready. Hold on. It's going to be a rough ride.

    CarmineD