The cascade of press accounts about the supposed horrors stemming from the coming budget sequestration is, indeed, a wonder to behold. A paltry cut in the rate of growth of a federal budget which has grown at an astounding rate over the last four, nay, ten years is hardly a matter of epic proportions.
“Give me a break,” as Senator Tom Coburn (R-OK) put it succinctly.
The important questions are whether the Republicans can a) stand their ground, b) make a strong case to the nation on the importance of letting the sequester rip, and c) offer prudent proposals to allow agencies, the Department of Defense most notably, the flexibility to shift priorities around to avoid any untoward disruptions which might impact vital functions.
The GOP seems to be doing “a)”, and there are efforts afoot to accomplish “c)”, but questions remain as to how good they are at “b)”.
Traditionally, Congress is loath to give up its power to micromanage executive branch functions for reasons both constitutional and venal. But, like earmarks, there are times when you have to just do the right thing in the circumstances. By offering some play in the rope of agency budgeting, they can enhance the likelihood that the overall budget cuts from sequestration actually stick, thus changing the terms of debate for the long haul.
But the Republicans, in the Senate as well as the House, need to articulate a clear, coherent message, which they are struggling to do right now, while offering positive changes in budgeting authority to allow for flexibility in accommodating the sequestration cuts, to bring the country around to their point of view on fiscal responsibility, thereby setting the table for entitlement reform down the road.
So the question becomes “Is the GOP up to the challenge?” Speaker Boehner does yeoman work, but he is not a natural front guy. His recent op-ed in The Wall Street Journal was too conflicted as to whether the coming cuts were good or bad (right answer: good!). Some have suggested he needs a permanent, public spokesman like Jay Carney at the White House to make news and stay on message. Moreover, we need to see more of Paul Ryan and a bullpen of attractive, articulate men and women from the respective caucuses working different aspects of the fiscal argument. Is there a War Room set up for messaging and quick response? You get the idea.
This is a moment of truth for the party of Lincoln. It has to make sequestration work even if it goes the way of the Whigs who, by the way, had a greater impact on the ultimate shape of American government and society than the Jacksonians.