Congress’ March Madness Over a 2 Percent Budget Cut


The month ahead will take the term “March Madness” out of the basketball arena and into the political arena. America faces a series of continuing financial challenges. And although the NCAA tournament hasn’t begun yet, here’s what the financial “brackets” look like:

The “sequester” — a 10 percent budget cut in “discretionary” spending is upon us — with dire warnings of cutbacks in unemployment benefits, “Head Start” programs for children, air traffic controllers and TSA workers at airports. On the plus side, there will be fewer IRS agents!

The picture is painted in such stark terms because both parties agreed that they needed this discipline to force themselves into taking much more sensible action with regard to the budget, an idea endorsed and signed into law by President Barack Obama.

Speaking of budgets, the United States hasn’t had an official budget for more than three years. Instead, we are funding our government with a set of “continuing resolutions” that merely authorize ongoing deficit spending — with no oversight or judgment of which programs might be appropriate to cut.

In mid-March, the president will send his budget message to Congress, a delay of about one month from the traditional budget message. Once again, it is likely that nothing gets done on a budget agreement.

And without a budget deal, the government must shut down. That’s the next potential crisis coming at the end of March. We lived through a shutdown back in 1995, when the first budget stalemate took effect under President Bill Clinton. The federal government shut down, starting in mid-November, and continuing through the winter holiday break, until everyone came back to their senses, and back to work — on Jan. 6, 1996. The world didn’t end. People even started wondering what we needed some parts of government for, anyway.

If we don’t have a budget — or agreement on another continuing resolution — the government will shut down March 27.

Yes, put spring break on the calendar, too. From March 25 through April 7, our elected representatives will go home to celebrate Easter and Passover — right in the midst of this likely “no-budget-so-we’re-shutting-down-the-government” crisis. Just like they did in December for the holidays, in the midst of the debt ceiling crisis.

Congress will come back to “work” the week before all of us must pay our taxes on April 15. Funny how they force us to meet deadlines, while they “kick the can …”

Maybe this time it will be different. Realizing that their joint committees and self-imposed deadlines were not forcing them to do their jobs, both parties passed the “No Budget, No Pay” bill, which the president signed.

This new, and hopefully persuasive, law was passed as part of the negotiations over extending the debt ceiling. And, speaking of the debt ceiling, that’s the next oncoming crisis — again.

The No Budget, No Debt Act simply pushed the Debt Ceiling issue to May 18, when Congress must consider it again. In the meantime, any new Treasury borrowings above the current $16.4 trillion will push the country above its official limit. No word on how they’d deal with that issue, if Congress fails to lift the debt ceiling again. And no word on how the Treasury would stave off default to its creditors if the ceiling isn’t increased.

And so March Madness is but a prelude to another crazy spring and summer in Washington, D.C. How much of this can Americans take without totally destroying respect for our system?

Does anyone seriously believe that Washington couldn’t find a sensible $85 billion to cut out of a $3.6 trillion government spending plan — roughly 2 percent?

Every working American has had to cut 2 percent of spending already this year, because that money is coming out of their paychecks in extra payroll taxes compared to last year. Millions of other taxpayers face higher tax rates and less disposable spending, not counting the drag of higher gas prices.

Somehow the American family manages to cope, to do more with less money in their pockets. But government will have more money in their pockets — from the tax increase they’ve taken from us.

We know how to set priorities. Why can’t government learn that lesson? It’s because they have no process for talking to each other about actual spending plans.

We will have our own March Madness if Congress can’t find a 2 percent budget cut — as every American family must.

And that’s The Savage Truth.

Terry Savage is a registered investment adviser and is on the board of the Chicago Mercantile Exchange. She appears weekly on WMAQ-Channel 5’s 4:30 p.m. newscast, and can be reached at She is the author of the new book, “The New Savage Number: How Much Money Do You Really Need to Retire?” To find out more about Terry Savage and read her past columns, visit the Creators Syndicate Web page at