The Weird Politics of Sequestration

A blog about business and economics.
July 8 2013 9:47 AM

Contemplating The Weird Politics of Sequestration as DOD Furloughs Begin  

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Military-industrial complex takes the toughest hit under sequestration.

Photo by JASON REED/AFP/Getty Images

Over the past several months as sequestration has taken effect without any devastating consequences to the American people, I'm more and more struck by how weird the politics of the debate have become. With today commencing large-scale furloughs among Department of Defense civilian workers, that's more acute than ever. Sequestration mostly cuts things that liberals think should be cut, but it's liberals who are expressing the bulk of the concern about it. That wasn't always the case.

Back last year, sequestration was deplored in a bipartisan way. That's why the big debate at the end of the Presidential campaign and during the winter of 2012-2013 was a blame game. Republicans tried to call it the "Obamaquester" while Democrats said the real problem here was GOP unwillingness to compromise on taxes. But ultimately, Republicans proved very unwilling to compromise on taxes and Democrats proved unwilling to cave. And so the sequester came. But once it came, the consequences turned out to be not really all that dire. Which I think is great. But I heard a lot of hand-wringing last week from liberals about the Washington Post's great story about how many of the bleak predictions about sequestration haven't come true, about how this kind of complacency is somehow undermining their position. Liberals really want people to be more upset about sequestration than they are, while conservatives are crowing that these doomsday scenarios haven't come to pass. But when you run the numbers, this doesn't make much sense.

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Recall that sequestration exempted from cuts Social Security, Medicaid, and most means-tested anti-poverty programs. It also cut equally from the military and non-military sides of the budget. But since the military is responsible for less than half of all federal discretionary spending, that means military spending took a bigger hit than any category of non-military spending. Then on the non-military side, Medicare benefits were left intact but Medicare provider payments were cut. What's more, at least some of the non-military domestic discretionary budget goes to what are still broadly "security" programs (Drug Enforcement Agency, Customs and Border Protection) about whose merits most liberals are skeptical. So you have a broad cut in government spending that mostly comes out of the government's various "guys with guns and uniforms" undertakings with some of the rest coming in the form of reduced profits for America's bloated health care industry. The fact that you can cut a lot of this spending without detriment to the welfare of the American people is exactly what liberals have been saying about these programs for years.

Nobody should deny that some real damage is being done. Kids losing their Head Start slots is a genuine tragedy, the hits to schools on Indian reservations are awful, and Meals on Wheels programs are slashing services. That's nothing to laugh off. But at the same time, these kind of cuts are a distinct minority of what's in sequestration. If you reversed the whole thing, for every fifty cents of programs to help the needy you'd be adding back a buck fifty of security programs, hospital largess, etc. Depending on the exact structure of the deal that might be a good idea or it might be a bad one. But there's no particular reason that reversing this cuts tout court ought to be a particular liberal priority, especially since restoring funding to liberals' favorite sequester-hit programs would be much cheaper and easier than finding the money to reverse the whole thing.

Long story short, the Obama administration should be somewhat embarassed by its own overblown rhetoric about sequestration but the main reason sequestration is proving survivable is that the administration did a good job of negotiating its terms. Canada isn't going to take advantage of those Pentagon furloughs to invade. Hospitals aren't turning away elderly patients. There's some real waste in federal spending, and despite the crude nature of the instrument the White House did an excellent job of mostly making the ax fall on the waste rather than highly effective programs like Socal Security and SNAP.

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

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