Jayson Jacoby
The Baker City Herald

We thought the nonsense related to the federal budget cuts known as the sequester had reached its apex with the pulling of college tuition assistance for about 201,000 National Guard soldiers (a blunder which Congress, to its credit, fixed last week).

Well, no.

The latest lunacy is that the feds, no longer content to close national parks and deprive children of vaccinations, are in effect calling for counties, including Baker County, to bail them out.

The target is the federal program officially known as Secure Rural Schools, but more commonly referred to as county payments.

The program, which dates back more than a decade, sends hundreds of millions of dollars annually from the coffers in Washington, D.C., to counties with public lands - and in particular forested land - within their borders.

The basic idea is to make up for some of the money these counties used to receive from the sale of timber logged on federal forests. That source of revenue has plummeted since the early 1990s, when the amount of logging on federal land dropped dramatically.

The federal government wants counties to repay $17.9 million. Of that, $3.6 would come from Oregon counties, and an estimated $40,000 from Baker County.

U.S. Rep. Doc Hastings, a Republican from Washington state, called the idea an "obvious attempt" to make the sequester seem to the public as harmful as possible.

We don't go in much for conspiracy theories, but the congressman's allegation is hardly farfetched.

Notwithstanding the heavy-handed nature of the government's gesture, asking counties to repay the money doesn't make sense in relation to the sequester. That's because the payments are based on 2012 revenues, which supposedly makes them exempt to the across-the-board cuts that started in early March after President Obama and Congress failed to make a deal on the budget.

("Cuts" in this case being something of a misnomer, by the way, since in many cases - defense being one major exception - they don't mean the government is spending less money than last year, but rather increasing spending by a smaller amount than was planned.)

Many other lawmakers have joined Hastings in criticizing federal officials for trying to pilfer county coffers, among them Oregon's senators, Ron Wyden and Jeff Merkley, and Rep. Greg Walden, whose district includes Baker County.

Given the widespread disgust among legislators, we think it's likely that counties, in the end, will still get the money.

Even so, this episode will forever remain an appalling example of how the federal government, though its expertise in spending tax dollars is formidable indeed, seems incapable of tempering its profligacy with anything resembling sober thought.

There's nothing reasonable about implying, as the feds have done in this matter, that somehow Baker County is partially responsible for the budget woes in Washington, D.C.