Political Hay

Sequestration Depression

The GOP is sort of cutting spending. Don't give it too much credit.

By 2.20.13

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With budget sequestration only nine days away, it looks like lawmakers are going to hold hands, plug their noses, and take the plunge. Washington, after years of talking about its budget problems, will finally set aside short-term political concerns and slash spending. At last some backbone – some gumption – from our elected officials. Huzzah, gentlemen!

If only it were that dramatic.

Instead the politics of sequester are shaping up to be as demoralizing as anything else in Washington. Greg Sargent, in his usual morning dervish of GOP bashing, got a lot right yesterday:

The Hill reports this morning, however, that Republicans say they’re not worried about the political impact of the sequester. They tell the paper that they will be able to make the case to the public that the sequester was Obama’s idea, meaning he’ll take the blame for the damage it does.

It’s an implicit admission that deep spending cuts are bad politically for whichever party owns them. After all, if this were not the case, then Republicans would not need to try to shift the blame to Obama for the cuts that are coming. Yet Republicans, and not Democrats, are the ones who are advocating for replacing the sequester only with deep spending cuts!

And these cuts aren’t actually deep. Sequestration amounts to $1.2 trillion in shrinkage over the next nine years – or an average of $133 billion per year. Further they aren’t even real cuts, as Sen. Rand Paul pointed out in his State of the Union response, since they only slow the rate of spending growth, not actual spending. One look at this chart by the Mercatus Center's Veronique de Rugy shows just how piddling the sequester really is.

And the reaction from the mighty paladins of Republicanism is: “Please! Don’t blame us!”

Instead they’re shifting the onus to President Obama. Several Republican congressmen have tweeted using the hashtag “#Obamaquester,” a not-so-subtle attempt to blame the cuts on the president. The president responded with a press conference yesterday flanked by first responders. He called the budget cuts a “meat cleaver approach” and assured the country that Congress could still stop them.

It was shameless theater and Republicans are correct that Obama should own the sequester. But still, there's something absurd about all this. Spending reductions are finally going to take effect and the major players in Washington are treating them like a hacky-sack, frantically kicking the sequester to the next person in the circle.

To be fair, several Republicans are openly supporting sequestration on principle. Rep. Doug Lamborn, who will have to let one of his staffers go thanks to cuts, nevertheless declared, “The bigger concern is what is good for the country.” Rep. Justin Amash pushed back on the “Obamaquester” tag, noting that both Republicans and Democrats voted for the sequester’s creation back in 2011.

And the House did pass a set of budget cuts that would have prevented the sequester from being triggered (one that the Senate never would have approved).

But since then the official Republican reaction has been to run from sequestration. The House GOP's budget guru, Rep. Paul Ryan, has taken to bashing President Obama for the sequester, even though he previously praised it and voted for it. Ryan should be out there explaining how sequestration doesn't even skim the surface of our problem. Instead he's heading for the hills.

Despite controlling the House and leveraging the debt ceiling deadlines, the GOP has struggled to pass budget reductions. Now we know the circumstances under which they can: the cuts must be mandatory, automatic, plausibly blamable on other people, and implemented gradually over the course of a decade. Also they must be measured against the rate of spending, meaning not real cuts at all.

Let your chest swell with confidence. Republicans 2016: The Ideas We Need; The Requisite, Incremental, Autopiloted, Politically Safe, Fake Spending Cuts We Deserve (And Are All Obama’s Fault). We can only hope the EPA hasn’t outlawed gas-guzzlers large enough to fit that bumper sticker.

None of this bodes well for the spending battles looming in the future. Already House and Senate appropriators are working quietly to avoid another high-profile government shutdown fight in March when the current stopgap budget expires. The debt ceiling will have to be raised again in May. If Republicans are queasy about sequestration, will they really stand up and demand serious cuts in coming months?

And then there’s the content of the cuts. Many conservatives are irritated about sequestration because it disproportionately targets the military. I don’t share their frustration, but I do understand it. The Pentagon has already accepted $487 billion in cuts over the next ten years through spending caps. Meanwhile the most hefty and consequential drivers of our debt – entitlements, health care spending, and student loans -- are mostly untouched by sequestration.

The more you look at the sequester, the more trivial it seems. And yet both sides of the aisle are running around in circles, screaming and pointing at each other. How can anyone with this mentality be trusted to raise the Social Security retirement age, or turn down the higher education faucet?

So carry on with the pessimism, conservatives. Washington is still depressingly broken. Spending cuts are still politically repulsive. And only a handful of Republicans are seriously trying to fix the problem.

If the country is drunk on government spending, sequestration is a baby step towards the Brita filter. That’s it.

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Matt Purple is The American Spectator's assistant managing editor.