A Modest Proposal on the 'Sequester'

By Leo Covis

About two months ago, when everybody finished panicking about the averted-just-in-time fiscal cliff, most pundits were clever enough to point out that the deal forged between Republicans in Congress and President Obama was not much of a solution at all. Sure, there was no credit downgrade and the US didn’t default on its loans, but there remained the looming “sequester”, an across the board cut in federal spending that would have terrible economic consequences. The logic went that the sequester was such bad policy, that because everybody agreed that it would hurt the economy, Republicans and Democrats would be forced to play ball with each other and come up with a compromise. As I write this, the sequester is set to take effect with not much more than finger pointing coming from Washington.

Why are lawmakers not working together to avoid the sequester? Sure, Republicans want to cut spending, but not to the Pentagon, right? Actually, not right. As House Speaker John Boehner explained in a January 6 interview with the Wall Street Journal,

Mr. Obama was sure Republicans would call for ending the sequester . . . because it included deep defense cuts. But Republicans never raised the issue. “It wasn’t until literally last week that the White House brought up replacing the sequester,” Mr. Boehner says. “They said, ‘We can’t have the sequester.’ They were always counting on us to bring this to the table.”

Mr. Boehner says he has significant Republican support, including GOP defense hawks, on his side for letting the sequester do its work. “I got that in my back pocket,” the speaker says. He is counting on the president’s liberal base putting pressure on him when cherished domestic programs face the sequester’s sharp knife. Republican willingness to support the sequester, Mr. Boehner says, is “as much leverage as we’re going to get.”

President Obama seriously miscalculated how much Republicans want to preserve military spending. As it turns out, they’re willing to let the sequester do its work, and now Obama and the nation are paying the price.

So the question is, what to do now? The President predictably embarked on a campaign style tour to explain just how bad the cuts will be in the hopes of bringing Republicans to the table, but I don’t think that’s going to work.

Instead, the president could let the sequester happen. He could explain to the American people that the Republican party won this battle. They’ve gotten deep cuts, to the tune of $85 billion, in federal discretionary and mandatory spending. It’s just what Republicans have always wanted. Most people already seem to see it that way, anyway.  The cuts will hurt the economy, but congressional Republicans don’t seem to mind. After the Bush presidency (and not so much during the Bush presidency) Republicans’ main argument against government spending was the need to cut the deficit. Well, here’s how they want to do it. Although, it doesn’t seem to bother them that the sequester will actually make it harder to cut the deficit. Go figure.

So, put it to the American people to decide if they want to live in an America with fewer teachers, crumbling roads, slower responses to disease outbreaks, longer flight delays, and harder-to-find jobs. It’s not fair to use people’s livelihoods as political chess pieces, but perhaps this is an opportunity to settle one of the biggest philosophical differences in American politics.  If it turns out that massive spending cuts by way of the sequester have made things better, people should vote Republican. If the sequester has made life more difficult, vote the bums out. Voters will have the chance to decide in November 2014.

A sequester primer 

Leo Covis is an MPP student at the Goldman School of Public Policy.