Sequestration came about last year as a way of allowing the Obama administration and members of both parties in Congress to kick a difficult problem down the road. It was political expedience of the highest order.
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The massive across-the-board cuts mandated by sequestration -- $1.2 trillion over 10 years -- were dangled before an angry electorate as a sort of bipartisan bluff. The politicians were saying, in effect, ‘if we don’t act responsibly on our own sequestration will force us to.’
But no one really believed Congress would ever stand by helplessly as huge chunks of the federal budget -- in particular the Defense Department’s budget -- were arbitrarily sliced away. Congress had made austerity pledges like this before and then found a way around them. Sequestration would be no different.
Or would it?
Now it looks like the politicians may have called their own bluff. With each passing day as the November elections draw nearer, the likelihood of Republicans and Democrats reaching a compromise that will prevent sequestration from taking effect on January 2 becomes more remote.
“All they have to do to turn sequestration off is to hit the off-button. But neither side is willing to do it.”
So despite broad, bipartisan opposition to sequestration the automatic budget cuts now look like a freight train barreling down the tracks with no brakes. The corrosive political environment won’t allow for compromise. Republicans and Democrats have drawn their lines in the sand and as usual the lines are miles apart.
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“Every politician is trying to appeal to their base. The mantra is ‘no compromise, no compromise, no compromise,’” said Richard Aboulafia, vice president of analysis with the Teal Group, an aerospace and defense industry consulting firm. “All they have to do to turn sequestration off is to hit the off-button. But neither side is willing to do it.”
President Obama has said he will veto a bill that simply rejects sequestration, insisting instead that Congress negotiate an agreement that includes tax hikes.
Republicans, many of whom have signed pledges not to raise taxes, have framed the issue as one of national security and they want to offset $55 billion in Defense Department cuts mandated by sequestration next year by slashing entitlement programs, many of which benefit the needy. Democrats say the defense budget shouldn’t be spared at the expense the most vulnerable in our society.
On Thursday the House of Representatives passed a bill that replaces about $100 billion in automatic spending cuts in 2013. Instead of trimming from the Defense Department, the Republican plan instead cuts benefits for federal employees and slashes funding for programs that feed low-income Americans.
Not a single Democrat voted for the bill and it has no chance of passing the Democratic-controlled Senate.
The current stalemate was entirely predictable when sequestration was first put on the table last fall, a direct result of Congress and the president’s inability to forge a budget deficit agreement on their own.
When deficit talks tied to a vote to raise the U.S. debt limit broke down last summer, President Obama and House Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) forged a last minute agreement that raised the debt limit but put off deficit reduction. Instead the two leaders created a so-called ‘super committee’ charged with trimming $1 trillion in spending over the next decade. Should the ‘super committee’ fail in its mandate the automatic cuts known as sequestration would activate in January of 2013.
Naturally, the ‘super committee’ failed to meet its November deadline and the threat of sequestration became a little more realistic. But Congress still had a whole year to work out an alternative to sequestration, which is widely viewed as bad – even dangerous – policy.
Even some of the politicians who agreed to it last year now concede that it was intended essentially as a bluff. Congressmen Buck McKeon (R-Calif.), chairman of the House Armed Services committee, and Paul Ryan (R-Wis.), chairman of the House Budget committee, admitted as much in a widely distributed op-ed piece that appeared this week: “This sequester was never intended to be policy. It was meant to be something both parties wished to avoid, in order to motivate members of the supercommittee to work together,” the two influential legislators wrote.
The problem is that the political environment is even more sour now than when President Obama, Speaker Boehner and, later, the super committee were flailing away at their respective budget negotiations.
Last year there was “a desperate need to show resolve on deficit reduction,” said Aboulafia, and sequestration was offered as bipartisan proof of that resolve to a skeptical public.
What the politicians apparently didn’t count on was that the political atmosphere would get even more poisoned in the ensuing months. “And it’s not going to get any better,” said Aboulafia, who held out little hope for an agreement that would avert sequestration any time before the November election.
The only hope to avert sequestration is for a “grace period” to emerge between the November election and the inauguration in late January during which lame duck legislators in both parties could push through a compromise that would gut neither the military nor social safety-net programs.
Senator Richard Lugar (R-Ind.), who lost a primary election on Tuesday to a more conservative Republican candidate, summed up the current mood in Washington in a bitter concession speech. Lugar said issues that once fostered compromise now linger in stalemates because neither side will agree to budge from their position.
“I don't remember a time when so many topics have become politically unmentionable in one party or the other. Republicans cannot admit to any nuance in policy on climate change. Republican members are now expected to take pledges against any tax increases. For two consecutive Presidential nomination cycles, GOP candidates competed with one another to express the most strident anti-immigration view, even at the risk of alienating a huge voting bloc. Similarly, most Democrats are constrained when talking about such issues as entitlement cuts, tort reform, and trade agreements,” Lugar said
In such an atmosphere a compromise on sequestration hardly stands a chance.