To listen to the parade of Obama administration officials warning of civilization-ending consequences from the measly $85 billion in spending "cuts" sequestration will bring, one can only reach one of two conclusions: Either they are just making stuff up to make the cuts as painful as possible, or the federal budget is so out of control that a mere 2.4 percent reduction in projected spending is more than the system can handle.
Frankly, it is both. Absolutely, in their zeal to make Republicans pay the maximum political price for what is actually both parties' fault, it is almost comical to watch one Cabinet official after another step up to the microphone and tell us that a 2.4 percent reduction (that isn't really a reduction) will cause airplanes to fall out of the sky, our national defense to be disabled and our children to starve. That game is among the oldest in Washington. Cut the Park Service budget, and suddenly they can't find the money to keep the Lincoln Memorial or Yellowstone open.
This sideshow is entertaining, but it misses what may be the most important lesson to be learned from this sequester debacle. While there is certainly a heavy dose of Chicken Little falling-sky rhetoric coming out of the bureaucracy, it is probably true that the rather indiscriminate sequester formula is presenting some challenges for some agencies.
How can that be? How many governors, state legislatures, city councils, small businesses and families have had to absorb 2 percent cuts in their budgets over the past five years or so, and have done so because they didn't have the luxury of simply borrowing or printing more cash? What's the problem?
The real problem is that so much of the federal budget is not optional. While the $85 billion sequester for this year is only 2.4 percent of the $3.6 trillion the government is projected to spend, let us not overlook the fact that roughly 60 cents of every dollar the government spends is "mandatory," as in entitlements. An additional 7 cents is interest on the debt. That leaves less than a third of federal spending that can actually be cut, and makes that $85 billion a little more significant.
If "cutting" discretionary spending by a lousy 2 or 3 cents on the dollar is enough to create dire consequences (for the sake of argument), imagine what would happen if we tried to reduce that spending by the 30 cents it will take to balance the budget and stop digging ourselves even deeper into unsustainable debt.
The moral of this ongoing story is clear: We can't get to a balanced budget without doing some serious work on that 60 percent of spending that is "mandatory," beginning with the 800-pound gorilla of Medicare. Any politician who claims to want to eliminate deficits but opposes meaningful entitlement reform is simply lying. It can't be done, and if we needed proof, this sequester mess provides all we need.
In fact, do the rough math, and the only way to balance the budget without addressing mandatory entitlements is to almost shut down the rest of the government. While those of us on the small-government side of things might not be entirely heartbroken by that prospect, we probably need to have the government do some things, like national defense.
If you believe, as most Americans do, that we cannot continue to spend money we don't have, and if you believe that there are some legitimate roles for government beyond paying Medicare bills and issuing Social Security checks, there is no getting around the simple fact that we have to bring all of that "mandatory" spending into the conversation.
Otherwise, it is just a big lie.
Gov. Gary E. Johnson, governor of New Mexico from 1995 to 2003 and the Libertarian candidate for president in 2012, is honorary chairman of the Our America Initiative.