Political Animal


January 28, 2013 10:31 AM Bad Idea Whose Time Has Come—Again!

By Ed Kilgore

While reading Evan Soltsas’ discussion at WaPo’s Wonkblog of the pending “sequestration” of appropriations due to occur on March 1 if some agreement to kill or replace it doesn’t happen, I suddenly and vividly remembered where I first heard the term “sequestrations.” Yes, it was in 1985, when a gridlocked Congress enacted the Gramm-Rudman-Hollings Balanced Budget Act, which created the across-the-board appropriations cuts (called “sequestrations of spending”) that would occur at a date certain if certain levels of deficit reduction were not achieved. The legislation is credited with pushing Congress and Poppy Bush into the 1990 budget deal which conservatives recall with horror to this very day, but that made a balanced budget later in that decade possible.

One of the fathers of “sequestration,” Sen. Warren Rudman, called it “a bad idea whose time has come.” Almost everyone thought it idiotic, and a reflection of congressional dysfunction. But it was actually just one in a long line of self-consciously idiotic budgeting actions—more often called “freezes”—that reflected an inability and/or unwillingness to set budget priorities.

It is generally the exemptions from spending “freezes” that reflect true priorities. And so it was more significant than anyone seemed to realize at the time that the 2011 deal exempted from exposure to sequestration Medicaid and several other low-income programs along with the VA, while limiting the amount of cuts that could be levied in Medicare.

It is possible Republicans could become so panicked at the imminence of defense cuts that they will agree to largely delay or cancel the sequestrations. But it’s more likely they will simply fight to spread the pain more widely, perhaps by going after the exempt categories. All in all, letting the sequestrations go into effect and then finding ways to plus-up appropriations for non-exempt programs that should be priorities is probably the best scenario for progressives.

Ed Kilgore is a contributing writer to the Washington Monthly. He is managing editor for The Democratic Strategist and a senior fellow at the Progressive Policy Institute. Find him on Twitter: @ed_kilgore.


  • c u n d gulag on January 28, 2013 11:06 AM:

    The Republicans don't want any cuts to the military.

    What they want, is at least one trophy, maybe more, that they can take back to display to their stupid and ignorant base - the ones who'll actually suffer from any social safety net cuts, to programs like SS, Medicare, or Medicaid.

    But, if at least one J*g or Sp*c gets a few buck less, they will all dance a celebratory jig.

    And our nations downward spiral will continue...

  • low-tech cyclist on January 28, 2013 11:32 AM:

    I agree that the best approach for Obama and the Dems on this one is to shrug and say, "okay, let the sequestrations happen." Then let the GOP propose alternatives if they wish.

    Whoever is most threatened by the sequestrations is the party at a disadvantage in any negotiations, because the sequestrations are going to happen, absent a bargain that postpones them. So if the GOP is more upset by the defense cuts than we are by the cuts to non-defense discretionary spending, then we might get a decent deal out of this.

    It's damned hard to cut defense spending, and if this is the way it can be done, then let's do it.

  • Ron Byers on January 28, 2013 11:53 AM:

    If I have to choose between the Ryan budget and sequestration, I choose sequestration.

  • bdop4 on January 28, 2013 11:53 AM:

    The useful function of the sequestration process is to force politicians and voters to seriously look at what they get for their tax dollar spent. Would they rather have dollars dumped into defense in exchange for the perception of safety and global control, or would they rather have the money go to pay for infrastructure repair and services to those in need?

    I say let it happen and then the voters will tell them what they REALLY want cut.

  • Peter C on January 28, 2013 11:57 AM:

    The ideological intransigence of the Republicans in the House is masking another of their core problems: they have a poor working knowledge of the content of the government’s expenditures. This incompetence explains the hollowness of their budgets in the last Congress which relied upon broad-brush ‘percentage-based’ limits to budgets rather than a bottom-up generation of what actually will be spent on what. Their current problem is that while they don’t like the specific defense cuts in the sequester, they don’t know much about the specifics beyond the few millions in the budget for public broadcasting. They can’t do the ‘horse-trading’ because they don’t know the horses well enough. In order to replace the sequester, they’d have to actually WORK and find specific cuts to propose. They don’t want to do the work, and they know that an angry constituency will emerge for anything specific that they target.

    I fear that the House will be a hopeless ball of dysfunction for the next 2 years. And, without filibuster reform, it seems likely that the Senate will not be any better. This is why I’m so disappointed in Harry Reid. Given the expected dysfunction of the House, we needed to be able to show that a Democratic-party-run Senate *could* function with more sensible rules curbing the power of an obstructionist minority party. If the Senate stays paralyzed, then it takes focus from the incompetent House and presents a muddled picture where blame is apportioned to both parties instead of being rightly concentrated with a Republican party whose goal is to show that government is inefficient and ineffective. In actuality, government is inefficient and ineffective to the degree that Republicans are in control; without them, it can work just fine.

    Reid had a chance to restore the Senate to a functional ‘majority-rule’ institution. He failed, AGAIN. Why, exactly, do we need him to be Majority Leader? There are other Senators with plenty of seniority and competence. Seniority is not a good proxy for effectiveness. We need effectiveness at this point more than traditional deference to longevity.

  • howard on January 28, 2013 12:44 PM:

    it is an article of faith among a certain kind of lefty that obama is a bad negotiator.

    i reject this position wholeheartedly, and what wasn't subject to the sequestration is a great example: bring on the defense cuts and protect the poorest - how bad a negotiation is that?

    the confusion many people have, still, in 2013, is the belief that obama is a progressive. he is not.

    he is a centrist, and he negotiates on behalf of centrist priorities, which are not always the same as progressive priorities (although in this case they come pretty close), but in terms of actual negotiation, he rarely leaves much on the table.

  • angler on January 28, 2013 1:06 PM:

    The politics of this for the GOP are to make a credible claim that Dems cut Medicare. Seeing Ryan's comments from yesterday, tbis is their gambit on sequestration. Doubt it will work but that's the bluff.

  • dweb on January 28, 2013 2:09 PM:

    The GOP master plan for Sequestration was always:

    (A) agree to a 50% split in cuts between defense and domestic.
    (b) When crunch time comes, wail that we can't possibly "weaken" our defense budget so it all has to come out of domestic.
    (c) use that excuse to gut Medicare, Medicaid and Social security.

    Expect John McCain to suddenly ramp up his face time on Sunday talk shows as the deadline nears.

  • boatboy_srq on January 28, 2013 3:48 PM:

    @Ron Byers: ditto.

    @Peter C: I think it's more cynical than that. The GOTea simply doesn't care about other spending priorities, but can't say so because a lot of those spending priorities are valued by their constituents. So the hurdle isn't to understand the federal budget and produce a productive approach, but rather to rephrase all the "cuts to entitlements" in terms that their constituents will swallow long enough to enact them before the grassroots figure out they've been had. A lot of the hemming and hawing from the Reichwing is most likely nothing more than their wanting to keep the Teahad bleating about "keep[ing] Big Gubmint hands off Medicare" while they push to take ever bigger handfuls from those very programs.