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Tuesday, April 30, 2013

A severed wasp: Democrats and the sequester

When Democrats voted last Friday to jigger the rules of sequestration to allow the FAA to ease flight delays, the conviction took hold on the left that Democrats have lost on sequestration, as Ezra Klein declared.  If that's true, it means that the budget battle that began when Republicans retook the House is over, and Republicans have won.  The ten-year vice grip on discretionary spending is closing.  Since spring 2011, Obama has agreed to some $3 trillion in spending cuts over ten years, while securing just $600 billion in new revenue. 

You could say no one has won -- Klein again -- as Republicans have failed to cut entitlements and acceded (so far) to huge defense cuts.  But they've achieved their more nihilist (and perhaps dominant) ends -- foreclosing on the kinds of long-term investments Obama has urged throughout his presidency, and crimping the economic recovery for which Obama would get the principal credit.

For progressive writers, realization has dawned in agonizing stages. I'm reminded a bit of George Orwell's account of  "a rather cruel trick I once played on a wasp. He was sucking jam on my plate, and I cut him in half. He paid no attention, merely went on with his meal, while a tiny stream of jam trickled out of his severed Å“sophagus. Only when he tried to fly away did he grasp the dreadful thing that had happened to him.”

Progressives have consistently underestimated the capacity of Obama and the Democrats to fold -- at the fiscal cliff, at the passage of continuing resolutions implementing the first tranche of the sequester through FY 2013, and at the FAA kerfuffle. Let's flash back a bit and watch awareness unfold, first that Republicans were going to focus their efforts on sequestration, then that they were going to let it happen, and then that they could induce Democrats to help cram the budget into the sequestration strait jacket.

When Obama inked his watery fiscal cliff compromise on Jan. 1, progressives were hardly euphoric -- though oddly enough, the right wing wrote as if Obama had bestridden the political stage like a colossus -- but they were reasonably sanguine. A Rubicon of sorts had been crossed; Republicans had acceded, under duress, to a tax increase on the wealthy; Obama had gotten half of an already diminished loaf (his December proposal for $1.2 trillion in new revenue over ten years). 

Focused on the last war, progressives were first preoccupied with the prospect of a new debt ceiling stickup.  On Jan. 7, in a post titled Republicans getting weak-kneed about the debt ceiling fight, Greg Sargent expressed some incredulity at the first signs that the GOP would take its stand on sequestration instead:
He [Boehner] acknowledged that the real leverage point Republicans have is not their threat not to raise the debt ceiling; now the GOP’s leverage lies in the Dem desire to avoid the spending cuts that will kick in as part of the sequester! Of course, half of those constitute defense cuts that Republicans, more so than Dems, oppose at any cost.
By February 8, Sargent was exhorting the Dem troops, Don't fall for the GOP's sequester bluff:
There seems to be a rising murmur among the press corps to the effect that the sequester debate has shifted a bit in the direction of Republicans. I’m not sure what the basis for this is, but Democrats are going to have to do a better job of spelling out precisely what the consequences of the sequester would be, so the public understands precisely what Republicans are willing to allow happen to force the spending cuts they want....

Is the GOP really prepared to shoot this hostage? Are they really going to allow a sequester to happen that Republicans themselves claim will help the enemy and tank the economy, in order to force deep and unpopular spending cuts, rather than agree to a compromise in which both sides makes concessions, at a time when the GOP’s numbers are already in the toilet? That’s not a tenable position. Treat it as such. Leave it there.
As deadlines loomed for the sequester to take effect (March 1) and current appropriations for the federal government to expire (March 27), Brian Beutler assumed a) that Obama would not agree to replace the sequester with better-designed spending cuts alone, rather than a mix of cuts and new revenue (true so far), and b) that he would not accept a continuing resolution to fund the government through the remainder of FY 2013 with the sequester in place (false). On Feb. 26, Beutler wrote:
The most important factor in this fight is probably the reality that Obama doesn’t have to face voters again and thus is willing to veto sequestration replacement bills if they’re composed of spending cuts alone. Congressional Democrats are fully aware of this, too, and that creates a powerful incentive for them to hold the line.

So sequestration will begin. Obama won’t cave. And then the tension sequestration was intended to create — and in fact has created — between defense hawks and the rest of the GOP will intensify and actually splinter the party. If that doesn’t happen quickly enough, then the sequestration fight will become tangled up in the need to renew funding for the federal government at the end of March. If Republicans don’t cave before then, they’ll precipitate a 1995-style government shutdown, public opinion will actually begin to control the outcome, and it’ll be game over.

So there are real dynamics at work here that can break the GOP’s resolve in this fight but that can’t easily be turned against Obama. Which means even though months of sequestration and a government shutdown followed by Obama folding outright is a theoretically possible outcome, there’s very little about the nature of the fight to make me think it’s likely to happen.
Folding outright, no. Folding in stages, yes.  A few days later, it became clear that Obama wanted to avoid a government shutdown, agree to fund the government for the remainder of FY 2013 at levels agreed to in the 2011 Budget Control Act with the sequestration cuts taking effect underneath that baseline, and let the cuts bite for six months before fighting anew over FY 2014. Early this month (April 3), Sargent scoped out the White House's plan for what was now plainly a "long game." He focused on C-Quest, a website rolled out by the American Bridge Foundation:
The Web site is also accompanied by a Web video that collects local news segments from around the country on the sequestration’s cuts, and makes the point that Paul Ryan’s budget cuts would dwarf those of the sequester...

This is yet another indication that Democrats see this battle as a long game. With mounting evidence that the cuts are beginning to be felt all over the country — evidence collected in an extensive Huffington Post piece the other day — White House allies are hoping to shift the attention of the political press to the experience of the sequester outside the Beltway....

The political question over time will be whether the sequester will dramatize the reality of spending cuts sufficiently to make being the party of long-term austerity an untenable position, forcing Republicans back to the table to deal.
So Democrats settled in, with trepidation, to wait for the pain of sequestration to manifest itself. (Steve Benen devoted many posts, admirably, to itemizing the harms inflicted) Then came the FAA fold, leaving Sargent to acknowledge the loss while holding out just a reed of hope that all is not lost:
As Steve Benen, Ezra Klein and others have noted, by agreeing to the FAA fix, Democrats have effectively undermined their own hopes that the pain of sequestration will ever force Republicans back to the table. Van Hollen, for his part, holds an outside hope that if Dems maintain a united front, an eventual resolution is still conceivable.

“I think there are enough Republicans who recognize that permanent sequestration is bad for the country, that there will be an opportunity to replace some or all of the sequester,” he said. “But we won’t get that opportunity if we keep addressing this piecemeal.”

And even if Dems do hold firm — a pretty big “if” — the chances that the pain of sequestration will force Republicans back to the table to deal could be minimized by another factor: the looming debt ceiling fight. House GOP leaders — who have already openly admitted that they are not prepared to allow default — may be under pressure from the right to use the debt limit to extract spending cuts from Dems. If that happens, GOP leaders may need to be able to point to continued sequestration to mollify conservatives who will be spoiling for a debt limit battle, by citing it as proof that Republicans are winning the battle over spending cuts already. That’s another incentive for them to stick with the sequester.

And so it’s looking more and more like we’re stuck in extended sequestration. But, as Van Hollen says, Dems should at least try to unite and hold firm, anyway. Not least because failing to do so will again show that Congress is overly responsive to powerful special interests, even as the cuts continue to programs that help poor people without powerful lobbies on their side.

For myself, I pretty much felt that Obama had given up the game at the fiscal cliff:
The Obamaquester (April 26)

Yet hope springs eternal. The FAA cave set a terrible precedent, but the real crunch may come over the massive defense cuts, which Obama decries as loudly as the Republicans do. Will he agree to mitigate those while leaving the rest of the sequester in place? That would be the full frontal capitulation.

If Obama does not pull an "FAA" on this front, Republicans may not be able to sustain their embrace of the sequester.

1 comment:

  1. 2014 is still along way off.
    But a lot of rural, Republican areas were complaining pretty loudly about the whole sequester. It could create an opening to better portray the right as budget arsonists, in a way the debt ceiling did not.
    Doubtful, since its an off year...

    ReplyDelete