The White House's Real Sequestration Problem

A blog about business and economics.
April 26 2013 1:06 PM

The White House's Real Problem on Sequestration Is With Military Spending  

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Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel speaks with reporters after reading a statement on chemical weapon use in Syria during a press conference on April 25, 2013, in Abu Dhabi, United Arab Emirates

Photo by Jim Watson-Pool/Getty Images

A lot of progressives are waking up this morning and wondering if Congress' alacrity in enacting a frequent flier bailout means the Obama administration's sequestration strategy is collapsing. My view is that this worry is overstated. The way the FAA fix works is that Congress is directing the Transportation Department to shift some money out of one aviation-related account into a different one in order to avert flight controller furloughs. That just isn't a fix that's going to work for broader problems that will mount as more and more furloughs and program cuts are needed.

Which doesn't mean Obama is out of the woods. I think it just underscores that there's always been a big problem with their strategy, which is that they want to simultaneously use the cuts to the military to bring pressure on Republicans and also deplore those cuts as ruinous to the economy and national defense. The military cuts would give me a lot of leverage vis-a-vis the GOP because I really think the United States spends wildly too much money on an agenda of global military hegemony. But that's not what Obama thinks, and it's certainly not what Obama says. Nor is it a line that red-state Democratic Party senators or folks plotting political strategy for the DCCC are going to want to hold. So far, Republicans keep bailing Democrats out by proposing to rescind military cuts and replace them with cuts in programs for the poor. The different wings of the Democratic Party are comfortable hanging together to oppose that and insist instead on a "balanced" alternative. But what if Republicans proposed to rescind the military cuts and replace them with nothing.

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Obama could respond by lambasting them for hypocrisy on debt and deficits, but since when has anyone ever really cared about deficit hypocrisy?

Administration officials swear up and down to me that they'd never sign any such bill. But do I believe them? I'm not sure that I do. And I'm certainly not sure that this is a line Tim Kaine, Joe Manchin, Heidi Heitkamp, and Kay Hagan are going to want to hold. Perhaps Republicans will never show enough tactical flexibility to put this on the table. Perhaps Republican leaders really are sitting there poring over their Reinhart-Rogoff charts absolutely terrified of a deficit-financed increase in military spending. But Ronald Reagan loved deficit-financed increases in military spending. George W. Bush loved deficit-financed increases in military spending. Even liberals can look at deficit-financed increases in military spending and see how they will work as fiscal stimulus. Are Republicans really going to eschew them? Are Democrats really going to block them? This has been my major doubt about sequestration from day one, and I continue to be skeptical.

Matthew Yglesias is the executive editor of Vox and author of The Rent Is Too Damn High.