Higher mathematics has never been our forte, so we are understandably confused by the arithmetic being used to quantify the big spending cuts looming in Washington, D.C.

The 2011 Budget Control Act was passed as part of a deal to increase the nation’s debt limit. It gave Congress six months to make reasoned, targeted cuts to save $2.5 trillion over 10 years. Congress failed, and now the act requires across-the-board cuts to achieve the desired savings.

The sequester was born. It is bad government on automatic pilot.

Unless another deal is reached by March 1, $85 billion must be cut in spending between now and the end of the fiscal year on Sept. 30. That’s 2.5 percent of anticipated spending totaling $3.6 trillion.

Certain “mandatory” spending — Social Security, Medicare and food stamps — are exempt from cuts, as are some “discretionary” expenditures. Roughly half the cuts will come from the defense budget, and the rest will come from all other government programs. All of the cuts will come from just 38 percent of the total spending.

Complicating matters, government managers can’t save programs they deem essential by cutting those they believe are unnecessary. The law requires all targeted programs be treated equally.

But it’s unclear to us that there will be any cuts, at least as we understand the term.

Our man in Washington reported last week that Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack met with reporters and outlined all manner of draconian, across-the-board cuts that would befall the department — 900,000 mothers and children thrown off the WIC program, meat inspectors furloughed, long waits at the Farm Service Agency, etc. In all, that totaled between $2 billion and $3 billion in cuts through September.

The next day Vilsack admitted that USDA officials weren’t exactly sure how the sequester would impact individual programs because they weren’t entirely sure which programs were included and which were exempt from the sequestration.

Vilsack said the department had been budgeted to spend $147 billion this fiscal year, which ends Sept. 30. It is on track, however, to spend $155 billion.

By our simplistic reckoning, sequestration will result in USDA going only $5 billion over budget instead of $8 billion. This is a spending “cut,” and a devastating one at that — by Washington standards.

Annual government spending has increased $1.5 trillion in 10 years, and the national debt tops $16 trillion. There is not one government program — Social Security, Medicare, defense, crop subsidies — that can’t be reformed and reduced. There are many that can be eliminated.

The president and Congress can’t govern through cheap gimmicks that produce only the desired public relations optics.

The sequester and similar schemes are unworthy of a second rate, third-world country. For the greatest republic on the planet, they are a farce.

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