Political Animal


January 14, 2013 4:21 PM The Missing Piece of the Fiscal Fight

By Ed Kilgore

Even as both sides in the fiscal fight become more categorical in their rhetoric (with Boehner and McConnell having ruled out revenue increases for the rest of eternity and Obama now reiterating a no-hostage position on the debt limit), there are countless opinions on how it will all work out. Conservatives alternate between making the debt limit vote the Mother of All Pressure Points for their foot-stomping demand that Democrats identify ways to begin repealing the New Deal and Great Society, and urging Republicans to keep their powder dry for 2014. And progressives remain wary of Obama’s resolution in maintaining a hard line, partly because he still expresses the desire for a fiscal Grand Bargain, and partly because he’s accepted Small Bargains in the past.

As Jonathan Chait points out today, the element of the fiscal puzzle that’s not getting quite the attention it deserves is the appropriations sequester that was scheduled to go into place when 2013 began, but was delayed for two months:

Sequestration is the murkiest piece of the battlefield. It’s not clear at all what either side is willing to settle for. Both dislike the automatic cuts, but each other’s best alternative is mutually unacceptable — Obama wants to replace the sequester with a mix of higher revenue and cuts to retirement programs, while Republicans want to replace it with all cuts to social spending. In the likely event of gridlock, we don’t know if the two sides would rather just turn off the automatic cuts or let them go into effect.

That’s right. We can guess, but we just don’t know, so we don’t even know if this rather important side-issue will affect the big wheels a-turning on the fiscal front.

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 14, 2013 4:35 PM:

    Well, in all honesty, we'll nee

    d a strong military to protect us from "The Poors" here, rising up.

    And, we'll have to have that strong military to protect the entire country from scavenger nations, who might look at our decline into a 4th-rate, 3rd World Banana Republic, and see some ripe pickin's!!!


    If we continue to go in the "Austerity" direction we're going, a large and expensive military will be about as useful, and make about as much sense, as the skulls on Conservatives - WHAT, are will it be protecting?
    There ain't nothin' there...

  • Peter C on January 14, 2013 5:10 PM:

    The sequester was always a stupid idea based upon the premise that 'we can't come to consensus without a horrible big alternative that would happen automatically if we don't act'.

    I have zero hope of any progress in the next 2 years; there is just no common framework to work from. I'm not convinced the two sides could agree on what day it was. The Democrats think today is Monday, but the Republicans want to use the Mayan Calendar, but it ran out a while back.

  • Mimikatz on January 14, 2013 5:10 PM:

    It is really looking like the GOP will make its stand not on the debt limit but on the government shutdown by refusing to pass the continuing resolution on funding the government. Obama's position seems to be that he won't negotiate on the budget until Congress passes the debt limit, whether they punt it to him or just lift it for a period of time with mostly Dem votes in the House. Funding the gov't going forward is one vote, replacing or suspending the sequester or letting it go forward is another, separate vote. So there are three votes here, four if you count the fiscal slope debate.

    I really don't think they thought Obama would hang as tough as he seems he will be. Each time Boehner has to go forward with one of these votes he loses power. It seems that this is all too complicated for the Tea Party wing if not the leadership as well.

    I think the end here will be messy, but Obama seems to have grasped that if he doesn't break them now, right after he won reelection, the next 4 years will be unbearable and nothing will get done.

  • S. James on January 14, 2013 5:15 PM:

    If the pattern holds, then the GOP will make a very large public spectacle, Obama will "hold fast" and then the two will find some kind of common ground.

    The difference, to me is in the perception.

    To the left, Obama has sold us out...again. We had the opportunity to kill the vampire, only to let it rise again.

    To the right, it's another reason to primary what's left of the impure so they can elect more conservative candidates.

    To the generally detached---meaning most voters--the president is seen as having made a small and reasonable bargain with lunatics in order to save the republic...again. And the GOP looks incrementally more unelectable for 2014.

    The game isn't for the next 90 days, it's for the next election. If the GOP continues to hold this for guns, for immigration, for campaign finance reform, their antics are for once truly killing them in the eyes of the people they need to cut them a little slack for being themselves. Call them independents, undecideds, reactionary, whatever. 2 years of this and it will be untenable for these people to hold their noses and vote for the GOP incumbent, or vote against the Democrat. GOPers will have proven themselves to be completely unelectable even to those who don't pay close attention.

  • Tom on January 14, 2013 5:53 PM:

    In the end, whatever the deal is, and I hope that Obama stays tough on the debt ceiling, the House will pass it with more Democratic votes than Republican ones. Obama is building an effective de-facto governing majority, by splitting the GOP into moderate and tea-party branches.

  • bleh on January 14, 2013 6:01 PM:

    Whatever happens in the larger picture, I think the sequester part is the clearest.

    They both would like it to go away, so they will agree to get rid of it.

    It was a stupid idea anyway. It was, and is, bad Kabuki. A Congress cannot tie its own hands, let alone those of a future Congress.

    This whole mish-mash of the debt ceiling, the so-called sequester, the so-called fiscal cliff, and the actual underlying fight over spending (which is all we have a Congress for) has been such a -- sorry -- wank-fest, aided and abetted by media fluffers, that I'm about to tune it out.

    What a sorry spectacle. "Clown circus" does great injustice to humorous entertainers.

  • PTate in MN on January 14, 2013 6:43 PM:

    I've spent some time recently noodling the number of years that need to pass before some implicit cultural norm becomes incorporated after some radical change. So, the French, for example, chopped off the head of their King in 1793, but it took until roughly 1870 before the body politic fully changed its mental representation of "government" from that of a hereditary monarch to that of a democratically elected President. So, roughly 80 years.

    The American Civil war-"testing whether that nation, or any nation, so conceived and so dedicated, can long endure"--was fought roughly 80 years after the Constitution established a federal government.

    The Emancipation proclamation was signed in 1863, but the military didn't desegregate until World War 2, schools were not desegregated until Brown v Board of Education in 1954, and the Civil Rights bill of 1963 secured basic civil rights for the descendents of slaves. So roughly 80 to 100 years for that change to get a foothold.

    There are other examples, but it seems as though, as a general rule, 70-100 years will have to pass for a change to be fully incorporated into the body politic. Every year that passes, a few more people get on board. By this rule, then, the idea that one of the functions of government is to ensure a social safety net (as embodied in Social Security) is 78 years old, close to being accepted. Roughly 70% of Americans say social security has been good for the USA.

    This suggests that Republican attacks on Social Security by the right wing are the rearguard action of the malignant and very slow to learn. So I hope Obama doesn't short the New Deal. A few more years and even the Republicans will think it is good for the USA.

    As for the appropriations sequester, I hope that it will occur to those in power to just end the threat. It is self-imposed. It is analogous to telling yourself that you'll jump into the Mississippi if you don't, say, finish a jigsaw puzzle by midnight. When you don't actually finish the puzzle, you'd be crazy to actually jump off the bridge. Now I understand that the Republicans in Congress are truly that crazy, but I still think that they will simply end the appropriations sequester and continue their good fight to destroy the American economy one bill at a time.

  • emjayay on January 14, 2013 6:45 PM:

    I don't understand why Obama wants to substitute the general cuts in everything including defense with cuts in retirement (Social Security, Medicare) programs. The miltary has a bit more slack than old people.