Why we need the sequester

February 25, 2013

The sequester is bad news. Everyone knows it. Except that it might not be.


Most Americans are living on "Fantasy Island" when it comes to federal spending.

We're not debating the relative merits of the $1.2 trillion in spending cuts set to go into effect on Friday if Congress does nothing (and rest assured they will do nothing.) Partisans agree on almost nothing, but the idea of a non-discriminate, across-the-board cut is almost universally acknowledged as something short of a good idea.

Instead, we are disputing the concept that the total failure of our politicians to even sit down and negotiate in hopes of averting what was once-considered a doomsday scenario is such a bad thing. In short: just because the sequester is a manufactured crisis doesn't mean it can't have the same effect as a non-manufactured crisis in waking up the body politic to the "have cake/eat it too" mentality that dominates not just Washington but the public at large.

A Pew Research Center poll conducted earlier this month makes clear the country's "both/and" nature and why it is so hard for politicians to thread that needle.

While there is widespread support for trimming federal spending, when it comes to the specifics of what should be cut, clarity disappears. In not one of the 19 (!) specific areas did a majority of the sample express support for a diminishing of federal spending. (The closest was the 48 percent who favored cutting "aid to the world's needy." So, that happened.) Somewhat amazingly, of the 19 areas Pew asked people about cutting, Americans favored increasing spending over decreasing spending in 16 of them.

What those numbers make clear is that most people live in a fantasy world where overall federal spending decreases even as spending on virtually every federal program increases. Given that "reality", it's uniquely possible that only through crisis -- manufactured or not -- will people come to grips with the fundamental paradox at the center of their thinking of what the federal government should or shouldn't do.

Make no mistake: People aren't paying much (really, any) attention to the sequester. And, it's possible that even after it goes into effect later this week and the consequences begin to be felt, most people still won't pay attention (or care).

But, it's also possible that the size of the cuts -- a trillion dollars is a ton of money even spread out over the next decade -- and the heat of the rhetoric coming from the two parties causes the sort of crisis that forces a decent number of people to pay attention and begin to re-examine (or, more likely examine) the way they think about spending. And, if enough people start paying attention, their politicians -- forever a reactive species -- could well be emboldened or intimidated into doing something big(ger).

The most basic truth of modern politics is that action happens only in response to crisis. (That may not be the politics we want, but it's definitely the politics we have.) The sequester may not be that crisis -- maybe it's the debt ceiling fight to come later this summer -- but if it is, that's probably a good thing for people who want things to change in some meaningful way. Short of a crisis, the sort of kick-the-can-ism that has dominated the last decade or more in politics will continue ad infinitum.

Fixbits:

The White House releases a breakdown of how the sequester would affect all 50 states.

MItt and Ann Romney will sit down with Fox News's Chris Wallace for their first post-election interview this week. Meanwhile, top Romney strategist Stuart Stevens says he takes the blame for the Romney campaign's loss.

Cuban President Raul Castro says the five-year term he was just reelected to will be his last.

Top Senate aides say the chamber is close to a deal on expanding background checks for gun purchases, but Sen. Tom Coburn (R-Okla.) says that's not the case.

A federal appeals court rules that the 2nd Amendment doesn't protect the right to a concealed weapon.

Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) suggests he might put a hold on John Brennan's nomination as CIA director over unanswered questions related to Benghazi.

Is Arizona Gov. Jan Brewer (R) shifting left?

Must-reads:

"President Obama Faces ‘Cliff Fatigue’ in Latest Budget Fight" -- Rick Klein, ABC News

"Governor of New Mexico, and Now an Envoy for Republicans" -- Fernanda Santos, New York Times

"The big sequester gamble: How badly will the cuts hurt?" -- Lori Montgomery and Paul Kane, Washington Post

"Obama’s new political group to lure unlimited donations" -- Tom Hamburger, Washington Post

"Supreme Court considers South’s legacy and progress on voting rights" -- Robert Barnes, Washington Post

"With campaign, Mark Sanford goes from Appalachian Trail to comeback trail" -- Karen Tumulty, Washington Post

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Sean Sullivan · February 24, 2013