Sequestration deadline offers politicians teachable moment

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Sequestration could indeed happen despite the fact that Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta stated on NBC's ‘Meet the Press’ on Sunday that to allow sequestration to occur would “really be a shameful and irresponsible act” that will “badly damage the readiness of the United States of America.” Panetta went on to say that the impact of sequestration will be to “weaken the United States and make it much more difficult for us to respond to the crises in the world.” This warning was echoed by Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Martin Dempsey who declared that with sequestration “we will become less safe.”

Furthermore, sequestration may have a profound adverse impact on a still shaky American economy. Other terrible consequences could likely occur such as drastic cuts by school districts on programs for educating special needs children.

The Budget Control of 2011, which along with an ineffective 'supercommittee,' gave birth to sequestration and should never have passed Congress or been signed by President Obama. But that’s water under the bridge. Now it’s time for our political leaders and other representatives to prevent the shooting of America in the foot, if not the heart, by refusing to embrace inertia.

It is certainly not time for these elected officials to take comfort in the fact that they’ll avoid blame by pointing to their opponents for the catastrophe that inaction may result in causing. It’s relatively easy for Democratic leaders to say the answer is to raise revenues and their Republican counterparts to say the solution lies in spending cuts. What’s needed is for those entrusted to safeguard our country to stand up to their own bases and reach a fair bipartisan compromise closing some sizeable tax loopholes and making some real cuts in government spending.

The conservative thinker, William Bennett, in his terrific book, “The Book of Virtues” noted that “if we want our children to possess the traits of character we most admire, we need to teach them what those traits are and why they deserve both admiration and allegiance.” I believe this education is not just for our children. What kind of moral lessons do our elected officials send by doing nothing and allowing sequestration to happen?

I realize it’s not easy for Democratic elected leaders and members to disappoint AARP, organized labor and other backers and support government spending cuts. Nor is it painless for their Republican counterparts to do the same with respect to the Tea Party, big business and Wall Street and to agree to raise revenue by cutting such tax loopholes as capital gains treatment for carried interests and tax deferral of very low taxed offshore earnings of multinationals. (Democrats also need to break from their own Wall Street and big business contributors).

Imagine the world if in May 1940, Winston Churchill didn’t have the backbone to refuse to negotiate with Hitler. It’s time for those we’ve entrusted to run our government to exemplify a little bit of Churchill’s courage and spirit.

It’s not that Congress is bereft of those who lack the right stuff. Senator John McCain (R-Ariz.) stood up to his North Vietnamese captors and survived many years in “the Hanoi Hilton”. Congressman John Lewis (D-Ga.) marched with Dr. Martin Luther King and put his own life on the line fighting racist oppression. Both have made us proud.

This is a very important teachable moment. It’s time for our elected leaders to emerge from what Teddy Roosevelt characterized as “the grey twilight that knows neither victory nor defeat” and demonstrate to the American public that our elected officials are capable of doing the right thing and stopping sequestration from happening. What a great lesson this would be for all Americans.

Cohen is a professor in the Legal Studies and Taxation Department of Pace University's Lubin School of Business and a retired vice president-tax & general tax counsel for Unilever United States, Inc. The views expressed here are his personal views.