Tuesday, October 22, 2013

The Obamaquester according to Harry

Harry Reid's view of the sequester -- and how we got saddled with it -- has been seeping into the national political narrative in recent weeks. Notwithstanding his alleged renewed bonds and recent successful teamwork with Obama, his view is not a pretty picture for the president.

In Twitter exchanges with Greg Sargent and others -- I think Jonathan Bernstein and Brian Beutler -- I have sought a convincing account and analysis and possibly justification of the Obama administration's thinking at the fiscal cliff -- why Biden, with Obama's backing, cut in on Reid's negotiations with McConnell and settled for half a revenue loaf and only a short-term sequester postponement. I haven't found one. And today's somewhat triumphal narrative by Sam Stein and Ryan Grim of the Democrats' short-term shutdown victory -- a purported tale of renewed harmony and mutual trust -- also provides the opposite of what I've sought: Reid's indictment of Obama's fiscal cliff conduct.
 He complained that Vice President Joe Biden had undercut fiscal cliff negotiations at the end of 2012, when Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) was offered a more generous deal on tax revenue and sequester spending than Reid felt he could have crafted.
It didn't escape his notice, Reid said, that the deal Biden made conveniently postponed the budget cuts two months, or just long enough to allow the Inauguration and the State of the Union address to pass without the sequester's shadow. Senate Democrats had been pushing for a two-year delay and had been prepared to settle for just one.

Now, in July of this year, the country was feeling sequestration's effects. Head Start classes were shuttered, scientific research imperiled, cancer treatments hampered, and the broad concept of functioning government was under assault.

The president said that he, of course, was unhappy with the various outcomes, but had to deal with different political realities. The message of the 2010 midterm elections had been that the country wanted him to work more closely with Republicans. And when it came to the ending of the Bush-era taxes, he had to uphold his pledge that the middle class would not see a hike. More generally, he worried that the Senate Democratic caucus would end up fractured if the party pushed too hard, leading the administration to cut deals directly with McConnell.

It was a painful jab at Reid, who takes pride in his ability to hold his broad caucus together on even the most fraught legislative battles. "If you're ever wondering if I can hold my caucus, just ask me," he told Obama.
The last sentence dispatches the administration's chief excuse: they had to deal, because the Senate caucus would crack. They didn't test the caucus's resolve for very long.

The Complaint of Reid is picked up from the Republican perspective by the Weekly Standard's Fred Barnes in today's Wall Street Journal. Quite rightly highlighting Republicans' superior leverage in upcoming budget negotiations, Barnes takes a Dems'-eye view of the sequester:
The survival of the automatic spending cuts gives Republicans the upper hand in confronting the White House and congressional Democrats on budget issues and new proposals by Mr. Obama that would involve new outlays, such as his plan for universal pre-K education. For Republicans eager to corral federal spending—and that's most of them—the sequester is a gift that keeps on giving.

Democrats, especially Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, are fit to be tied as they watch cherished social programs gradually shrink. The sequester, enacted during the struggle over the debt limit in 2011, was the brainchild of the White House. It requires $1 trillion in cuts over 10 years in nonentitlement spending, $84 billion in 2013 and $109 billion in 2014.

To say the sequester has backfired for Democrats is putting it mildly. The specter of automatic cuts was supposed to scare members of a Senate-House panel assigned to forge a bipartisan budget accord. If they failed, the sequester would become law. Democrats believed this would never occur. But it did.

Now across-the-board cuts go into effect annually without the need for a fresh vote in Congress or the president's signature. Nor are Republicans forced to offer Democrats the sweetener of tax increases. The sequester is cuts and only cuts. As a result, Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell noted proudly last week when announcing the end of the shutdown that "government spending has declined for two years in a row [for] the first time in 50 years."
 This muted triumphalism -- cast as consolation for Republicans licking their self-inflicted shutdown wounds -- is tempered by a slightly uncanny confession. Republicans have learned to love the sequester, but they really ought not:
Even the survival of the sequester wasn't an unalloyed win for Republicans. The automatic cuts take a huge bite out of Pentagon spending, which is bound to weaken military readiness. This has distressed many Republicans, and rightly so. Sens. John McCain (R., Ariz.) and Lindsey Graham (R., S.C.) have called for action to ease the impact on the armed forces.

Mr. Reid claims that the Pentagon spending reductions give Democrats the advantage over Republicans in the new budget talks. (The shutdown deal keeps the government open until Jan. 15.) Yet most Republicans have been willing to swallow defense cuts—so far. They regard the sequester as a rare victory in their fight to reduce the size of government.

But there are limits to its value as a political instrument. For one thing, Mr. Reid says the annual reductions will become less painful when cuts decline as spending caps rise. For now, though, this doesn't appear to have eased the obsession of Mr. Reid, Mr. Obama and Democrats with the impact of the sequester. Quite the contrary. Mr. Obama insists that it is damaging the economy.
Logically, you might think that the sequester inflicts symmetric political pain -- as Obama's negotiators, proposing it in July 2011 as their heads zoomed toward the debt ceiling -- designed it to be.  The difference in response appears to be psychological: Democrats hate the domestic cuts more than Republicans hate the military ones. That's probably because Democrats assess policy outcomes by their effect on the country, and Republicans only by their effect on political fortunes (though they doubtless convince themselves otherwise, i.e., that domestic spending cuts are "good" for their own sake, regardless of their effect on the country's long-term economic prospects and fiscal health).

Of course, Republicans have so far proved unable to write actual appropriations bills under sequester caps. Democrats may have more leverage than they think, and the sequester may prove to be unsustainable. But perhaps not.

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