Sequestration represents a kind of excellence in failure. Lawmakers in Washington couldn’t even design a sword of Damocles correctly. This is depressing, and suggests even the most basic tasks are beyond the reach of our lawmakers. As a result, a lot of people appear particularly glum, as if they gave up optimism for Lent. But what if you decided to embrace hope during the Easter season? Is there any evidence that there could be a rebirth of common sense and progress?
Such a pursuit would require a degree of faith, a reliance on things unseen and a belief in hope over experience. But there have also been some more concrete developments that might at least distract you from greater despair and doubt.
The first is purely procedural. This month, the president, House, and Senate will all present budgets as a part of the standard budget process. Washington getting back to its regular rhythm is no small thing. It represents a return to the central issues of the budget—taxes, spending, and investment—and distance from the blame game of sequestration politics. For Senate Democrats, who have shirked the formality of producing a budget for some time, this alone might seem miraculous.
A return to normal business means there will be hearings and public debates about entitlements and closing loopholes. That might remove some suspicion from the process. The series of last-minute crisis bargaining—the holy trinity of the debt ceiling, fiscal cliff, and sequestration—make people feel like they’re being taken. Yes, any grand bargain will be worked out in a small room too, but if the issues have been aired in a formal way that might raise trust in an ultimate deal. (Warning: business-as-usual also means lobbyists and 100 interest groups will pick apart 100 different elements of any deal. Still this is progress: In a time of total dysfunction, regular dysfunction is preferable.)
Once the larger debate starts, the threshold questions for progress will be familiar: Will Republicans move off their no-taxes posture and will President Obama agree to changes in entitlement programs? Both are possible: Obama has endorsed entitlement changes in public and private—from raising the Medicare retirement age, to means testing it, to changing the formula for Social Security increases. Republicans agreed to $600 billion in revenue. The trick is really binding those two positions in the same deal.
Republicans were absolute in their opposition to replacing the sequestration cuts with tax revenue. That could be a sign of their unwavering resistance to the idea. But it might also have been the macho Republicans were required to show to build trust for a future accommodation.
GOP leaders probably needed to be a little extra macho on sequestration. Many influential Republicans believe that GOP lawmakers conceded to the president in the fiscal cliff and debt limit negotiations. In conversations with GOP aides, it was clear that their bosses believed the base wouldn’t tolerate another perceived surrender. Now at least the party’s leaders can refute the claim that they back down whenever Obama tries to pressure them. If there is ever going to be a grand bargain, GOP leaders will need to sell it to their rank-and-file. If nothing else, Republican leaders can make the pitch now without being shouted down.
We interrupt this story with a bulletin from reality. “We’re done on revenue,” says one GOP aide about any future deal that would include tax revenue. So whatever imagined new trust there may be among the Republican rank-and-file and their leadership is irrelevant because leaders aren’t going to try to sell a deal that includes tax revenue.
Pessimists have a strong case, to be sure. Republicans held out for 22 years before they voted for a tax increase two months ago, and it’s a good bet they don’t want to do that again anytime soon. But the same GOP aides now saying that Republicans are “done on revenue” once said the GOP-controlled House would never vote for a tax increase. In the end, that prediction was wrong. House Speaker John Boehner also said he wouldn’t agree to any debt limit increase that didn’t include an equal amount of spending reductions. That didn’t come to be either.