April 22, 2013

The Republican strategy on sequestration has been clear for months now: sequestration is terrific because spending cuts are good…and every specific program cut by sequestration is a terrible injustice that Barack Obama should have avoided.

The first round of complaints were about White House tours, of all things. That was actually useful, in a clarifying sort of way; if Republicans couldn’t support cutting spending on White House tours, it’s highly unlikely that there were any specific cuts they could defend. Certainly not cuts that could affect middle class Americans or wealthy contributors (who are presumably a lot more likely to be Washington tourists than, say, the people whose Head Start or housing assistance has been cut).

Today’s GOP complaint is about cuts to the Federal Aviation Administration, which in turn lead to cuts in air traffic control, which in turn means airport delays. More cuts are on the way.

Be careful — you’re going to hear people blaming “both sides” for these cuts, but that’s absolutely wrong. For example, James Joyner notes that Obama resisted a measure which would have given him more flexibility to choose which cuts to hit, and claims:

The result is this kind of nonsense: Deep and stupid cuts to areas of the budget where we all agree that spending makes sense. Not even the most die-hard Tea Partyer wants to do away with air traffic control. And, yet, here we are.

But that’s really wrong. It may be true that no one specifically wants to shut down air traffic control, or the FBI, or food inspections, or the military…but once you start really looking at that list, what you find is that the level of cuts involved mean that something that “nobody” wants to cut will in fact have to be cut.

The truth is that sequestration cuts — which are significant enough already — already represent significantly lower levels of cutting spending than what House Republicans wanted. Some Tea Partiers in the House voted against them because they were not severe enough. And don’t forget: the budgets that Republicans have been voting for, year after year, promise to entirely wipe out non-defense discretionary spending over the long term. All of it.

Now, it’s true that if you ask Republicans whether they support this cut or that cut, at least the ones that affect their supporters, they’ll claim that, no, they only want to do away with waste, fraud, abuse, and foreign aid. But that’s not what their budgets say. It’s not what their rhetoric says, either.

So Obama’s refusal to accept GOP demands that he accept “flexible” sequestration, giving the administration some latitude over cuts, wasn’t so much about a Washington Monument strategy (making sure that spending cuts were noticeable) as it was about not wanting to take on the responsibility for choosing specific cuts in a political climate that promised that any specific cut — no matter what — would bring solid Republican criticism that it was the wrong cut.

The real story here is simple: if you want massive spending cuts, that means massive cuts to government programs that people like. And one political party has been advocating those cuts, and even risking default of the government in order to get them. No matter what Republicans say now about the effects of those cuts.