Sequester debate takes hold in the press

The good, the bad, and the indifferent in this week's coverage--plus some resources for reporters just tuning in

With mandatory federal spending cuts looming on March 1, news organizations have finally begun running down the numbers on whose bank accounts may be smaller after the latest fiscal deadline, known as the sequester, and the rush—or, in some cases, lack of a rush—in Washington to avoid the economic damage the cuts will cause.

Some parts of this flurry of reporting have been banal or even confusing. But the stronger pieces point a path toward clearly explaining the cuts’ potential impact, scrutinizing politicians’ rhetoric, and putting the fiscal showdown in the context of larger economic trends.

At Politico earlier this week, Scott Wong showed how NIMBY thinking applies to politicians’ approach to the budget: a sizable contingent of lawmakers, some of whom generally beat the drums for steep spending reductions, are working hard to keep the cuts out of their district.

Wong’s report suggests a rich vein that could be pursued by local reporters, comparing their representatives’ rhetoric to actions—hopefully with more compelling results than readers and viewers got from some of President Obama’s interviews with local TV stations on Wednesday.

Creating straw man arguments and contrarian frames, on the other hand, does not help the public much. That is what Richard Cowan and David Lawder of Reuters did in a piece that opened with the declaration, “March 1, 2013, will not be remembered as the day the U.S. government disintegrated.”

No, it won’t, but as Cowan and Lawder acknowledge further down the across-the-board cuts will not help the economy either:

If allowed to run their course, the austerity measures could cost 750,000 jobs and keep weak economic growth stunted for the rest of 2013, the non-partisan Congressional Budget Office warns.
That’s painful enough, even without the government collapsing. And as Binyamin Appelbaum and Annie Lowrey report in today’s New York Times, there is some evidence that the fiscal turmoil in Washington has already been a drag on the economy.

Plenty of the sequester coverage has focused on the effect of military cuts, in particular the harm to state and local economies. USA Today took a close look at that issue on Wednesday with and article accompanied by an interactive map, and the New York Times covers similar ground today, with an emphasis on civilian furloughs.

But a helpful blog post by The Washington Post’s Aaron Blake points to some other areas where the cuts would hit hard—federal grants to state governments for education and social services, such as family welfare and support for the elderly.

That sort of attention to practical impact suggests the coverage may be turning away from easy if unenlightening issues like the blame game. When politicians trade barbs reporters feel compelled to write about it, but a who-hit-Willy? approach can sow confusion without adding new insights, as shown in a Tuesday piece by the Post’s Zachary A. Goldfarb.

More interesting are attempts to link the debate over the cuts to broader economic concerns, such as Greg Sargent’s cogent Washington Post column connecting rapidly growing income inequality of incomes to the sequester fight.

Sargent’s post examines a new study by a Congressional Research Service analyst that found that the dramatic rise in top incomes over the past 15 years is due to larger capital gains and dividends—that is, income from investment rather than work. At the same time, wages have been stagnant and the economy is producing at least 20 million fewer full-time jobs than people seek.

As Sargent put it:

This finding is directly relevant to the current debate, because Obama and Democrats want to offset the sequester in part by closing loopholes enjoyed by the wealthy, such as the one that keeps tax rates on capital gains and dividends low. Dems want to do this in order to prevent a scenario where the sequester is averted only by deep spending cuts to social programs that could hurt a whole lot of poor and middle class Americans. Republicans oppose closing any such loopholes and want to avert the sequester with only deep spending cuts.

Sargent is a liberal writer; would he have written so favorably about a study that pointed to a different conclusion? But the basic approach of connecting credible new research to a current political debate is one that analysts across the spectrum—and mainstream reporters—can emulate.

Reporters would also be wise to adopt the simple linguistic approach of Jeanne Sahadi at CNN/Money, who eschewed the obfuscating term sequestration by translating that word with roots in Latin (sequestrō, meaning to “set aside”) into plain English.

“It’s just a fancy word for automatic, across-the-board cuts in funding,” Sahadi wrote. The point was reiterated by her colleague Annalyn Kurtz, who wrote that sequestration is “just jargon for automatic, across-the-board cuts in funding.”

Finally, for journalists around the country who may be just tuning into the sequester debate in earnest and trying to unpack it for their audiences, there are a bevy of useful resources. The nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office produced a handy primer last fall on the economic effects of the sequester.

And a newer CBO report shows that a range of austerity measures, including sequestration, could reduce economic growth by 1.5 percentage points—nearly half the average annual real increase since 1948.

Other documents with useful background information include:

• A 394-page Office of Management and Budget report that provides both an overview and the fine print on sequestration cuts

• A Congressional Research Service report last October on job losses

• A January CRS report on which programs will be affected or exempted

Of course, for the time-strapped—and which journalists aren’t?—there’s also Dylan Matthews’s comprehensive, chart- and photo-laden sequester FAQ, posted Wednesday afternoon at The Washington Post’s Wonkblog.

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David Cay Johnston covers fiscal and budget matters for CJR’s United States Project. He is a reporter with 46 years of experience, including 13 at The New York Times; a columnist for Tax Analysts; teaches tax and regulatory law at Syracuse University Law School; and is president of Investigative Reporters & Editors (IRE). Follow him on Twitter @DavidCayJ. Tags: , , , ,