Who Is Lying to You About Sequestration?

Who's winning, who's losing, and why.
Feb. 20 2013 6:46 PM

The Confused Person’s Guide to Sequester Politics

Who is lying to you about sequestration? Whom should you believe?

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Couldn’t Republicans introduce that bill again? They could, but they won’t. Republicans prefer the talking point to another tough vote on spending cuts, and when you ask whether they’ll move the bill, they wash their hands of the whole mess. “We've done our work,” Boehner spokesman Michael Steel told me via email today. “Waiting on the Senate.”

Well, fine, what’s the Senate doing? The Senate Democrats actually announced a sequestration replacement plan last week, right before this 11-day recess began. When Boehner refers to a “plan that can pass both Houses of Congress,” he is implying that this one can’t. The Republican plan couldn’t, either, but you know how it is.

What’s the difference between the House Republican plan and the Senate Democrats’ plan? You can’t name just one. The Senate plan would replace the $85 billion of cuts this year with $110 billion of cuts and taxes, reducing the defense cuts to $27.5 billion and raising (hopefully) $54 billion with the “Buffet rule,” the new millionaire income tax. The House Republican plan from last year replaced all the defense cuts—over the 10-year sequestration period, not just this year—by undoing much of the Obama presidency. The “Orderly Liquidation Authority” in Dodd-Frank, the $22 billion dedicated to breaking down banks? Gone. The Social Services Block Grant? Gone for $17 billion. The $14.5 billion for state health care exchanges and the $16 billion Prevention and Public Health Fund created by Obamacare? Gone.

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Any better ideas? I wouldn’t say “better,” but there are two factions in the GOP that oppose their party’s “official” plan. The first, larger faction: Spending hawks who are willing to let the axe come down on defense. “They all voted to raise the debt ceiling with a military sequester,” Sen. Rand Paul told me last year, “and now they’re all basically caterwauling about it.” In his Tea Party response to the State of the Union, he opposed any wimpy replacement of sequestration. Hawks like him are unconvinced by the warnings of huge job losses. “I think that’s the kind of demagoguery that we see when people aren’t interested in true spending reductions,” said Georgia Rep. Tom Price, who has a decent chance of being elected to the Senate next year. “They always put the worst thing out there that affects people’s guts.”

The other Republican faction consists of defense hawks, like Sen. Lindsey Graham and Sen. John McCain, who want to replace this year’s defense cuts with cuts to the federal workforce. They might be the most dangerous, friendly-firing Republicans of all, in pure “messaging” terms.

I give up. Why? Because Graham, McCain, and other defense hawks challenge the conventional (and wrong) wisdom that sequestration would sign up Washington for horrible cuts it could never undo. Earlier this month, one Republican member tried to convince me that the damage from sequestration wouldn’t be as bad as people say, because the next fight in Washington will be over the continuing resolution that funds the government. Congress can whittle down the “meat axe” and change what gets cut. “On March 28,” said the Republican, “you can re-order the priorities of how these reductions take place. Give the heads of these departments the flexibility they need to make smart savings.”

If that happens, then the eternal battle over spending cuts and tax hikes continues, moving past an event Republicans can blame on the president. The public is pretty well acclimated to blaming Republicans for a government shutdown, in part because there are lots of Republican members on record not worrying about a shutdown. The White House knows that. Democrats know that the “Buffett rule” is incredibly popular. And they know it’s the Republicans, not them, who are grasping for leverage. It was one short month ago that House Republicans met in Williamsburg and agreed to punt the debt limit a few months, because they’d rather fight on the sequester, and look more responsible.

“Why wouldn’t we deal with the smaller [challenges] first,” said South Carolina Rep. Mick Mulvaney at that retreat. “Maybe build up a little momentum, a little credibility, not only with the credit markets, but with the folks back home, that we can deal with these things.” It made more sense than blaming the next wave of the debt crisis on Barack Obama.