By agreeing to give the FAA flexibility in implementing the sequester, in response to the outcry over flight delays, Democrats effectively squandered their leverage in the sequester battle, by signaling that they will selectively undo its effects when the political going gets tough. Does that mean they’ve lost the sequester fight completely?
In an interview this morning, Dem Rep. Chris Van Hollen — a top party strategist — was surprisingly frank in conceding that Dems had given away crucial leverage by agreeing to the FAA fix. But he said Dems could still make up some of that lost ground — and called on them not to agree to any more targeted sequester fixes.
“We have certainly made it more difficult to stand firm going forward,” Van Hollen told me. “But we’re going to have to reclaim some lost ground here. We cannot have a situation where people just cherry-pick the sequester.”
Van Hollen bluntly suggested that Dems — in agreeing to just a targeted FAA fix — had sent a message about Congress that it’s only responsive to powerful interests.
“If you do that, you’re attacking the symptoms rather than the underlying cause,” Van Hollen said. “When you do that, what happens is the most politically strong groups with the most lobbyists get relief, at the expense of everybody else. Meals on Wheels, or kids on Head Start, or grants on biomedical research — all of those get left behind.”
Indeed, as the Huffington Post demonstrates, those cuts are really set to devastate programs like Meals on Wheels, causing a real human toll.
Is it too late for Dems to change course? Now that Congress has proven itself willing to act to mitigate specific sequestration cuts, other special interest groups are gearing up to secure the same thing for themselves, which could result in the sequester getting undone piece by piece, while sequestration-level funding continues — a total defeat for Democrats.
But Van Hollen called on Dems to have a united front in this battle going forward, and said they should not agree to any more targeted fixes. “I don’t think we should be voting for exceptions to this,” he said. “We’re going to have to draw a line and say we’ve got to deal with this in a comprehensive way, rather than play Whack-a-Mole.”
“It’s going to be tough,” Van Hollen acknowledged, speaking of the pressure that will be brought to bear on Dems to agree to more targeted fixes. “That’s why it’s going to require a united position and leadership.”
As Steve Benen, Ezra Klein and others have noted, by agreeing to the FAA fix, Democrats have effectively undermined their own hopes that the pain of sequestration will ever force Republicans back to the table. Van Hollen, for his part, holds an outside hope that if Dems maintain a united front, an eventual resolution is still conceivable.
“I think there are enough Republicans who recognize that permanent sequestration is bad for the country, that there will be an opportunity to replace some or all of the sequester,” he said. “But we won’t get that opportunity if we keep addressing this piecemeal.”
And even if Dems do hold firm — a pretty big “if” — the chances that the pain of sequestration will force Republicans back to the table to deal could be minimized by another factor: the looming debt ceiling fight. House GOP leaders — who have already openly admitted that they are not prepared to allow default — may be under pressure from the right to use the debt limit to extract spending cuts from Dems. If that happens, GOP leaders may need to be able to point to continued sequestration to mollify conservatives who will be spoiling for a debt limit battle, by citing it as proof that Republicans are winning the battle over spending cuts already. That’s another incentive for them to stick with the sequester.
And so it’s looking more and more like we’re stuck in extended sequestration. But, as Van Hollen says, Dems should at least try to unite and hold firm, anyway. Not least because failing to do so will again show that Congress is overly responsive to powerful special interests, even as the cuts continue to programs that help poor people without powerful lobbies on their side.