Major Stakes for Both Parties
Shakespeare once noted that Julius Caesar should beware the Ides of March, but this year it looks like March 1st — not the 15th — is the date to be reckoned with. That’s when the so-called budget sequester cuts go into effect unless Congress and President Barack Obama can agree on a different set of cuts to satisfy the need to reduce the budget deficit.
The president has stepped up his warnings about the impact of the mandated sequester cuts, warning that they would lead to furloughs for key government employees like FBI agents, and reduced hours for Border Patrol agents, airport security officers and air traffic controllers. The $85 billion in cuts is roughly split between domestic and military spending and the president noted that the threat of the cuts going into effect has already caused the U.S. Navy to delay the deployment of an aircraft carrier that was headed to the Persian Gulf.
Budget Blame Game
With only days to go until the sequester deadline, both sides in the faceoff seem more focused on who is likely to get blamed if the cuts go into effect rather than how to stop them. The basic breakdown goes like this. Democrats believe they have the upper hand because they are confident the public will eventually blame Republicans for the standoff, especially once the cuts go into effect and the media begins to focus on the impact. Republicans, on the other hand, think they have an advantage because they believe the public is still adamant about cutting the deficit, especially after President Obama got his way and raised taxes on the wealthy earlier this year.
I don’t think either side is sure which party will get the blame, or if voters will simply decide they are both responsible and distribute blame equally. I think Republicans are taking a bit more risk because public polling seems to show they are often blamed more than the Democrats for the dysfunction in Washington. But Democrats may be counting too much on some sort of public outrage to kick in once the cuts go into effect. Government agencies probably wouldn’t have to begin furloughs for at least a month or so, and that could leave a lot of voters wondering what all the fuss is about if they don’t see any immediate effect on government services.
It Will Never Happen
The sequester idea came about in August of 2011 as a way to force Congress to reach a deal on deficit reduction. The thinking was that lawmakers might not reach a compromise unless they were threatened with the prospect of harsh mandatory cuts that would go into effect unless they reached a budget agreement. The pain was to be distributed roughly equally between the military and domestic spending. The idea was that Republicans would be loath to accept the defense cuts while Democrats would be spurred to act by the threat of cuts to programs funding early childhood education and public safety.
Well, apparently both sides underestimated the level of political dysfunction and polarization in Washington. Tea Party Republicans came to town beginning in 2010 committed to the idea of shrinking the size and role of the central government. They believe the Obama White House is incapable of backing real budget cuts so they have decided the sequester cuts, as severe as they are, are their best option to declare an initial victory in their war against spending.
Democrats were convinced that the president’s re-election last November and their gains in both the Senate and House of Representatives had shifted the political equation on the sequester cuts in their favor. They thought Republicans would cave on going through with the cuts because they would be fearful of public opinion. Well, it turns out, at least so far, that most Republicans are still more fearful of conservatives on their right and they would rather risk negative reactions from moderates than set off a conservative primary election challenge against them in their homes state or congressional districts.
Mr. Obama and the Democrats want any new deficit-cutting deal to include ending some tax loopholes for the wealthy as another way to increase revenue into the government coffers. But Republicans seem determined to fight that. They argue the president got his revenue bump earlier when he was able to extend the Bush-era tax cuts for all except those making more than $450,000 a year. Republicans want to keep this battle squarely on the issue of government spending.
Does the public think spending can be cut? The polls say yes. But as always, the devil is in the detail of which programs you are trying to cut and how.
So here we are. Two trains headed down the track straight at each other. Neither engineer seems about to blink, nor are their hands near the brake. Brace for impact.