The budget impasse has been compared with a game of chicken, in which two idiots in hot rods hurtle toward one another, with the first to swerve declared the loser. It is an apt analogy for the superficialities of the process, but there is a difference: in the case of the game of chicken, a wreck would be regrettable, but for America sequestration would be an enormous tragedy.
At the core of the argument is the fundamental impossibility of matching the things that we desire with the resources available to get them. We are not in a closed, static system, but there are limits to what can be done, particularly over a short period of time. To paraphrase Katharine Hepburn: you CAN have everything---just not all at the same time. Governance entails choices, and so far government has decided not to choose.
A chunk of money that Washington spends each year is to pay the substantial interest on our growing debt, and although interest rates are quite low, they won't stay that way, and in any case the absolute dollar amount of debt service is very large indeed. We've already seen the American government's debt ratings cut, and we won't be reneging on any interest obligations.
More than half of our federal government's outlays are for entitlement programs. Many of them are essential for some of the people who receive them, but the programs are poorly structured and inefficiently administered. And they have large constituencies that elected officials, not over-endowed with political will, have much interest in annoying. So, if any of these outlays are reduced, it will not be by cutting the benefits to current recipients. Instead savings will come in the outyears, when changes in eligibility will affect people not yet receiving gratuities.
The remainder of the expenditures are discretionary, but only in the same way that entitlements are discretionary. Government can cut them, but there is a price to be paid for doing so. We can reduce the size of the bureaucracy, but nobody in Washington, where most of the bureaucracy resides and there is waste aplenty, is much in favor of it. You can cut military expenditures, but there are national security implications here and little enthusiasm for making reductions that are big enough to effect substantial savings. Among other things, there are local economic implications to military cuts, and, as Speaker Tip O'Neill keenly observed, all politics are local.
In short, any savings that can be made prudently will be too small to make a difference, and so the focus on the other side of the sheet: revenues.
The tax code, an unintelligible and inequitable pastiche of theories and dodges, is the product of a hundred years of absent noodling, riffs on a number of disconnected themes, some of which are well-meaning, but which in the aggregate benefit nothing so much as the professions of accountancy and tax law. Attempts to reform the tax code have had as much success as attempts to create room-temperature nuclear fusion, and the current situation---in which government expenditures (which, as you recall, nobody has the will to reduce) far outstrip revenues to support them---means that there are only two solutions, neither satisfactory: 1) descend into the abyss of sequestration or 2) raise taxes.
Draconian, automatic and arbitrary reductions are so unpleasant that many people are in denial about their inevitability. But if an agreement isn't reached, they will occur, and it won't be attractive. Yes, we will jettison part of the swarm of parasitic drones among the unproductive Pentagon workforce, but there will also be cuts into the meat of defense. Some of our government's bureaucracy will be eliminated, but not enough to clean the rancid odor of waste, fraud and abuse that permeates the air in Washington, and some essential services will not be delivered. Of the tax increases that are coming, one can only say that they will be too small to make a difference over the mid term and longer, and that some of them will prove to be counterproductive and will generate exactly the opposite of their intention. A complete overhaul of the tax code is what's needed, but it's a bit late for that now.
To most of the participants in Washington this is a game, and they are acting accordingly, not with a dedication to the people but instead with immaturity, a narrowness of purpose and a focus on the accrual of credibility in the political street. As with many similar games, all outcomes produce a loss of some kind, but in this game there is asymmetrically larger damage from non-cooperation. Evidently, the people to whom we entrust the well-being of the nation find more personal and party utility in being stubborn. That's what happens when you don't have the courage to make choices, even though making choices is what you get paid to do.