Sequestration reclaims the national spotlight

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FAA furloughs caused by the sequester were resolved late last week, after Congress leapt to action to stop flight delays nationwide, but that didn’t stop the Republican Party from using its weekly address to condemn the Obama administration’s handling of the issue anyway.

It was an odd message, accusing the White House of engaging in a conspiracy – President Obama, it said, wanted to “inflict pain” on the public on purpose – and lying about the policy’s origins. The GOP message also suggested the Republicans’ Twitter hashtag helped resolve the problem, which is a pretty silly argument.

But the fact that the party’s weekly message was devoted to sequestration in the first place reinforces a larger point: the policy is back in the national spotlight. Indeed, President Obama devoted his weekly address to the same topic.

For those who can’t watch clips online, Obama argued that this policy is about more than just delayed flights.

“Congress passed a temporary fix [for the FAA]. A Band-Aid. But these cuts are scheduled to keep falling across other parts of the government that provide vital services for the American people. And we can’t just keep putting Band-Aids on every cut. It’s not a responsible way to govern. There is only one way to truly fix the sequester: by replacing it before it causes further damage. […]

“I hope Members of Congress will find the same sense of urgency and bipartisan cooperation to help the families still in the crosshairs of these cuts. They may not feel the pain felt by kids kicked off Head Start, or the 750,000 Americans projected to lose their jobs because of these cuts, or the long-term unemployed who will be further hurt by them. But that pain is real.”

The “Band-Aid” point is of particular significance because there’s renewed clamoring in Washington right now for a series of related “fixes.” Soon after the sequester took effect, Congress delivered a reprieve for meat inspectors; then the military was given some additional leeway; then the FAA was permitted to move funds around. Now, all kinds of industries and agencies are wondering, “What about us?”

The smart move would be to either kill or replace the policy that’s hurting the country on purpose. That’s easier said than done.

Part of the problem is that Republicans have not yet decided whether they like the sequestration cuts themselves. Late last week, GOP officials continued to celebrate the sequester, which the party has long characterized as a “victory.” But in the party’s weekly address, the Republican message was that sequestration “is bad policy” and “the wrong way” to go.

The party is going to have to make up its mind. If it’s “bad policy,” why is the GOP boasting about its efficacy? For that matter, why aren’t Republicans working on a solution?

As for the larger political dynamic, Republican National Committee Chairman Reince Priebus continues to gloat over the resolution of the FAA fight, telling Fox News on Friday night, “I mean, it was just a 100 percent loser for the president and the Democrats.”

A whole lot of center-left pundits agree. Ezra Klein argued the other day:

Sequestration was supposed to be so threatening that Republicans would agree to a budget deal that included tax increases rather than permit it to happen. That theory was wrong. The follow-up theory was that the actual pain caused by sequestration would be so great that it would, in a matter of months, push the two sides to agree to a deal. Democrats just proved that theory wrong, too.

Agreed. When Republicans recommended sequestration, Democrats assumed the GOP would be uncomfortable undermining the U.S. military in a time of war, but in reality, Republicans now seem entirely unconcerned. Democrats also assumed the GOP wouldn’t want the blame for hurting the country deliberately, but as it turns out, Republicans don’t much care about that either.

And with that, the Democrats’ perceived leverage on this fight faded quickly. Indeed, the Republican message has descended into complete incoherence – celebrating their policy when it hurts the poor, blaming the White House for their policy when it hurts anyone else – and neither the GOP nor the political establishment in general seem to care at all.

It makes the odds of a legislative remedy unlikely.

But insofar as accountability matters, the original sequestration sin was not in Democrats recently making miscalculations about the Republican capacity for shame; it was two years ago when this deeply stupid policy was crafted in the first place. Jon Chait’s take on this rings true:

Obama’s mistake wasn’t the design of sequestration. It was finding himself in that negotiation to begin with. Earlier this year, Obama refused to negotiate over the debt ceiling, and Republicans caved and raised it. If he had done that in 2011, they would probably have done the same thing. Instead, Obama took their demand to reduce the deficit at face value and thought, Hey, I want to reduce the deficit, too – why don’t we use this opportunity to strike a deal? As it happened, Republicans care way, way, way more about low taxes for the rich than low deficits, which made a morally acceptable deal, or even something within hailing distance of a morally acceptable deal, completely impossible.

By the point at which Obama figured this out in 2011, the debt ceiling loomed and it was too late to credibly insist he wouldn’t negotiate over it. Sequestration was a pretty good way to escape fiscal calamity. The mistake was getting jacked up over the debt ceiling in the first place.

I’d quibble a bit with Jon’s characterization of the details – he makes it sound like Obama was comfortable with congressional Republicans using the debt ceiling to hold the nation’s wellbeing hostage, but that’s not quite right. The president didn’t have much of a choice, and he tried to make the best of a bad situation, assuming GOP officials weren’t bluffing at the time and were willing to shoot the hostage (i.e. us).

But the larger point is sound – the sequester was predicated on the assumption that Republicans would negotiate in good faith, consider sensible compromises, and take steps to avoid deliberate harm to the nation. Since those assumptions were misplaced, the dispute was a one-sided fight from the beginning.

Sequester and Sequestration

Sequestration reclaims the national spotlight

Updated