[The word for today is “gormless.” Go to any popular online dictionary, and you’ll find that it’s a 19th Century expression that means something on the order of “lacking intelligence,” or “stupid.” [1] But if you see something stupid why not just call it that and be done with it? This is the 21st Century and KISS is our motto.[2] Why interject a ten dollar word when a fifty cent epithet will do? Well, because there are meanings and shades of meanings. Sometimes the more complex expression does a better job of describing actual situations.

Take “gormless.” The old spelling was “gaumless,” and the verb form “to gaum” meant variously to handle in some improper fashion, to smear with a sticky substance, or to stare vacantly. [3] What a series of images! Imagine them all together, wrapped up in a single person or group: fumbling around, staring and spreading sticky goo. Is there a better visual for modern politics?

Perhaps. But if ‘gauming’ implies sticky, vacuous mishandling, why are people who don’t gaum – i.e., the gaumless – also stupid in some fashion? Frankly, I don’t know. Perhaps it’s just one of the peculiarities of the English language. Or perhaps we should blame Emily Bronte, who wrote Wuthering Heights. She’s the one who said: “Did I ever look so stupid, so ‘gaumless’ as Joseph calls it?”[4]]

Anyway, let’s move on to the latest antics of our gaumless (or gormless) politicians. I’m speaking, of course, of the forthcoming “sequester” (i.e., reduction) of the Government’s spending authority for the remainder of this fiscal year. As we pointed out last month, the ground rules for the current sequester were modified in January by the American Taxpayer Relief Act of 2012.[5]

A 2011 statute set out a 10 year program for reducing the federal deficit.[6]    In general, the concept is simple, even though its execution is not. In the event that the spending authority granted by Congress in any given year creates a deficit that exceeds the target for that year, spending automatically will be reduced. How? By reducing the authorized spending levels. And how does that happen? Well, it’s a bit mysterious.

Cuts will be made in “discretionary” spending only, and a series of exemptions are authorized. The 2011 statute speaks of spending categories, and accounts[7] within those categories.  Apparently all categories of spending are subject to reduction, but some accounts within categories may be exempt. The rest – the non-exempt – will be reduced by a uniform percentage large enough to eliminate the deficit overrun.[8]

Is there an actual list of which accounts are subject to, and which are exempt from sequestration? Yes, but you won’t find it in the law passed in 2011. You have to go to Title 2 of the United States Code for the answer. Social Security, Veterans Benefits, interest on the National Debt, military personnel and a hodgepodge of other accounts are specifically exempted there.[9]

The American Taxpayer Relief Act of 2012 didn’t change any of that very much, but it did postpone the effective date of sequestration for this year (FY 2013)[10] until sometime in March.[11] So, not to put too fine a point on it, the Administration now has seven months to make a year’s worth of cuts in its discretionary spending. That should hurt a bit, at least for the people affected.

Now let’s move back to the main topic of our piece. There’s a great debate right now about sequestration, and about who’s responsible for the current mess. Which side is right, and which is gormless? This is not an easy question because both parties created the situation. A divided Congress wrote and passed the deficit reduction law in 2011, and the President signed it. So, rather than pick on individuals, I think it’s better to concentrate on the gormless arguments currently in fashion. Each side has some, and all are ridiculous.

Take, for example, the notion that, instead of uniformly reducing all spending accounts, we should craft a budget that reduces or eliminates wasteful or ineffective programs, and leave the rest alone. That’s all very fine but, you know, that’s what Congress is supposed to do when it passes a budget. Obviously Congress failed this year; otherwise we wouldn’t have to go into automatic spending cuts. What’s the point of asking them to try again? Who really believes the Congress can achieve a better result in the next few days?

One Republican proposal is that the Congress should just punt on deciding what cuts to make. Instead, it should give the President authority to make whatever cuts he wants, so long as he makes enough of them.[12] But the President isn’t buying that solution. He says that there’s no good way to make all of those cuts, without affecting good programs, and he doesn’t want to be stuck with that[13]. He’d rather stay with the current system, where he can deplore all cuts, and blame the Republicans for the unpopular ones.

And how does he get to do that? After all, he and the Senate Democrats helped create the sequestration process. My guess is that he’s expecting the public to (i) forget that he signed the sequestration law and (ii) focus its ire solely on the Republicans, largely because they’ve been the biggest proponents of budget cuts. Good luck on that. Presumably the Republicans will find a way to share the credit.

Then there’s the argument that sequestration will hurt the national defense. How do we know that? Well, recently the Navy canceled deployment of a second aircraft carrier to the Persian Gulf,[14] reportedly because of sequestration and budget worries. Do you really believe that? Apparently the task force will go to sea, but not to the Persian Gulf. Where are the savings? And in an organization the size of the Navy, there’s always money around for the really important stuff. Obviously the Navy didn’t think that providing a second carrier to threaten Iran was as important as other things on its agenda. What things? Beats me! No doubt that information is classified.

And finally, there’s the Conservative argument that sequestration is an important tool for reducing the deficit, and we need to do that for the sake of our children. You know, there was a time when I too believed such things, but I’m not sure that today’s Movement Conservatives are very good spokespersons for a balanced budget.

No doubt you all remember the Ryan Budget from the last election cycle. That’s the budget proposal, dearly beloved on the Right, that restructured [i.e., reduced] social programs, lowered taxes, then added tens of billions of dollars to annual defense spending for the foreseeable future.[15] The Conservatives weren’t serious about balancing the budget or reducing the deficit; they just wanted a source of funds for tax cuts and more foreign wars.

So where are we in the sequestration debate? Which side is right, and which is gormless? Well, right now it’s too close to call. Both sides are prone to silly and irrelevant arguments but, at the end of the day, both are also clear on their objectives. The Republicans don’t want to raise additional revenue, even by closing tax “loopholes;” while the President wants to do lots of that. The President doesn’t want to cut programs, even by a little bit, while the Republicans want to do that.

The two sides might find a way forward in a compromise that does a little of both. Then why do they argue so much? Well, most likely the silly arguments are for our consumption; you see, both sides agree on one thing for sure; that we, the public, are the gormless ones, and need to be amused, and fooled, whenever possible.


[1] See, e.g., the Merriam Webster Online Dictionary, at http://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/gormless

[2] For those of you who don’t know, that’s “Keep It Simple, Stupid.”

[3] See The Compact Edition of the Oxford English Dictionary, Complete Text Reproduced Micrographically (Oxford, 1971) at gaum, Vol. I, p. 82. Hereafter, the Dictionary will be cited as OED at ___.

[4] The OED provides the quote. See OED at gaumless, Vol. 1, p. 82. The OED defines gaumless as “Wanting sense or discernment.”

[5] Public Law 112-240 (January 2, 2013), 126 Stat. 2313. Eventually you’ll be able to get the slip law from the Government Printing Office, but apparently not yet. When it’s available, it should appear at http://www.gpo.gov/fdsys/browse/collection.action?collectionCode=PLAW&browsePath=112%2FPUBLIC%2F%5B200%3B%5D&isCollapsed=false&leafLevelBrowse=false&isDocumentResults=true&ycord=70

[6] See Budget Control Act of 2011 (August 2, 2011), 125 Stat. 240. Title I sets out the sequestration process.

[7] What’s an account? See 2 U.S.C. §905(j): “For purposes of subsections (b), (g), and (h) of this section, each account is identified by the designated budget account identification code number set forth in the Budget of the United States Government 2010–Appendix, and an activity within an account is designated by the name of the activity and the identification code number of the account.” There, does that help? If you want an online source for this material, go to http://www.law.cornell.edu/uscode/text/2/905 That’s the source we use here at Elemental Zoo Two

[8] See Budget Control Act of 2011 (August 2, 2011), 125 Stat. 240, 241 at § 101 (amending § 251 of the 1985 Gramm-Rudman Act):  “(2) ELIMINATING A BREACH.—Each non-exempt account within a category shall be reduced by a dollar amount calculated by multiplying the enacted level of sequestrable [ouch!]budgetary resources in that account at that time by the uniform percentage necessary to eliminate a breach within that category.”

[9] See 2 U.S.C. §905. The President can exempt military personnel accounts; the rest are exempted automatically by statute. Again, for a good online source for this material, go to http://www.law.cornell.edu/uscode/text/2/905

[10] Fiscal Year 2013 began On October 1, 2012. Sequestration won’t start until the 6th month of FY 2013.

[11] When? We didn’t know back in January, and we’re still not sure. See the blog of 01/09/2013, More Notes on the Coming Sequestration and the National Debt. You can find it on Typepad, at http://elementalzoo.typepad.com/elemental-zoo/

[12] See The Examiner, Gehrke, Libertarian senators: Give Obama the flexibility to implement sequestration — he’ll hate it (February 27, 2013) at http://washingtonexaminer.com/libertarian-senators-give-obama-the-flexibility-to-implement-sequestration-hell-hate-it/article/2522754?custom_click=rss

[13] See Daily Press, Shapiro & Lessig, Obama: Sequestration demands a compromise (February 27, 2013) at http://www.dailypress.com/news/breaking/dp-nws-shipyard-obama-speech-main-20130227,0,2656019.story

[14] See U.S. News on NBC News.com, Miklaszewski & Rafferty, Navy to pull aircraft carrier from Persian Gulf over budget worries (6 Feb. 2013) at http://usnews.nbcnews.com/_news/2013/02/06/16873226-navy-to-pull-aircraft-carrier-from-persian-gulf-over-budget-worries?lite

[15] See, e.g., The Foundry, Graham, Paul Ryan’s Budget Proposal Makes Defense a Priority (March 22, 2012) at http://blog.heritage.org/2012/03/22/paul-ryans-budget-proposal-makes-defense-a-priority/