Wonkbook: America, like Congress, divided over sequester

February 27, 2013

Welcome to Wonkbook, Ezra Klein and Evan Soltas's morning policy news primer. To subscribe by e-mail, click here. Send comments, criticism, or ideas to Wonkbook at Gmail dot com. To read more by Ezra and his team, go to Wonkblog.

Wonkbook's Number of the Day: 31 percent. That's the cut expected in the defense budget as the result of the winding down of two foreign wars and budget cuts, including the sequester. Much has been made of the reductions to defense spending -- but they are actually on the lower end of post-war demobilization cuts, with comparison to Korea, Vietnam, and the Cold War. 


(REUTERS/Jason Reed)

Wonkblog's Graphs of the Day: The many jobs that pay women less than men, and New Mexico has the highest teen pregnancy rate of any U.S. state.

Wonkbook's Top 5 Stories: 1) The sequester is locked in; 2) a Republican civil war?; 3) Bernanke comes to Congress; 4) everything falling into place on immigration reform; and 5) Christie to support Medicaid expansion.

1) Top story: America, like Congress, divided over sequester

Poll: Americans are divided on the sequester's spending cuts. "Americans are sharply divided over the wisdom of the across-the-board federal spending cuts due to start Friday, with half saying they will be too severe and a slightly smaller share saying they are necessary to reduce the deficit, a new Wall Street Journal/NBC News poll finds." Neil King Jr. in The Wall Street Journal.

Austerity will get much more severe. "The federal government, the nation’s largest consumer and investor, is cutting back at a pace exceeded in the last half-century only by the military demobilizations after the Vietnam War and the cold war...Federal, state and local governments now employ 500,000 fewer workers than they did on the eve of the recession in 2007, the longest and deepest decline in total government employment since the aftermath of World War II." Binyamin Appelbaum in The New York Times.

@JohnJHarwood: Sequester not a catastrophe -- just unpleasant, counter-productive, ridiculous. A Cinammon Challenge for Washington grown-ups.

...And the sequester will sock a vulnerable economy. "The sequester is coming at a particularly inopportune time in the still-fragile U.S. recovery, it promises to bite consumers and business activity quickly...Forecasters also expect the economy to lose a full point of growth this year from the payroll and income tax increases that lawmakers agreed to in the 'fiscal cliff' deal at the end of 2012." Jim Tankersley in The Washington Post.

WonkTalk: Will America even notice the sequesterBrad Plumer and Ezra Klein in The Washington Post.

Up next, the continuing resolution. "House Republicans are convening a “special” closed meeting Wednesday afternoon to discuss a stop-gap government funding measure to prevent a government shutdown. The meeting signals urgency on the continuing resolution. Government funding runs out March 27. The funding measure will not hit the floor this week, but could come up next week. One option being eyed by Appropriations Committee Chairman Hal Rogers (R-Ky.) would give the Pentagon more flexibility with funds when the sequester hits." Jake Sherman in Politico.

@ObsoleteDogma: Can we skip to the part at the end of March where Obama & the House GOP agree on phantom cuts, fund the govt, & cancel the sequester?

Why this fight is different from all other fights. "It’s seems like we’ve been here before. It’s midweek in Washington, a budget deadline looms on Friday that’s sure to cause some measure of havoc around the country and both sides are busy posturing in front of inanimate or human props. But this fight is different from other fights: There is no urgency to solve it." Jake Sherman in Politico.

@dylanmatt: I think the sequester might be the first piece of legislation passed ironically to actually go into effect.

The sequester's impact will be felt unevenly. "[T]he sequester is really like a tornado, scattershot in its course. It would strike some communities and largely bypass others, cutting across class, politics and geography...Interviews with more than a dozen state and municipal leaders coast to coast show that the sequester would afflict big cities and military communities — because of cuts to social programs and defense — far more than middle-class suburbs or rural areas." Philip Rucker in The Washington Post.

The Obama administration is trying hard to push sequester-cut stories. "President Obama and a pair of Cabinet members on Tuesday continued the administration’s steady warnings about the deep automatic spending cuts that are due to take effect on Friday." Josh Hicks in The Washington Post.

@TheStalwart: Obama says the sequester is dumb. Okay, then why did he propose it?

...For example, here's Secs. Napolitano and Holder. "Attorney General Eric H. Holder Jr. warned Tuesday that Americans will be less safe if federal agencies have to absorb the major cuts set to go into effect Friday under what’s known as the sequester." Natalie Jennings in The Washington Post.

...And R&D will get hit hard. "Thanks to budget pressures and the looming sequester cuts, federal R&D spending is set to stagnate in the coming decade. The National Institutes of Health’s budget is scheduled to drop 7.6 percent in the next five years. Research programs in energy, agriculture and defense will decline by similar amounts. NASA’s research budget is on pace to drop to its lowest level since 1988. As a result, scientists and other technology analysts are warning that the United States could soon lose its edge in scientific research — and that the private sector won’t necessarily be able to pick up the slack." Brad Plumer in The Washington Post.

@pourmecoffee: If sequester occurs, Xbox Live players must control 15 minutes of air traffic for every hour of play. Your government thanks you.

Here's what Obama said in Newport News, Va. " President Obama visited a nuclear submarine factory here Tuesday to warn that allowing deep cuts to domestic and defense spending to take effect on Friday will have severe consequences, blaming Republicans for failing to compromise to avert the automatic reductions...The campaign-style rally at a factory that helps build sections of Virginia-class nuclear attack submarines was the president’s latest bid to raise public alarm over the cuts." Zachary A. Goldfarb and David Nakamura in The Washington Post.

Republicans still don't have a political stance on the sequester. "Senate Republicans emerged from a policy meeting Tuesday deeply divided over what they should offer to replace or mitigate across-the-board spending cuts scheduled to hit Friday, probably postponing a showdown in the Senate on the parties’ two approaches." Jonathan Weisman in The New York Times.

Interview: Dylan Matthews talks with Wade Horn, the Bush administration's director of welfare programs, on the sequesterThe Washington Post.

They're pondering outsourcing the cuts. "Days before the March 1 deadline, Senate Republicans are circulating a draft bill that would cancel $85 billion in across-the-board spending cuts and instead turn over authority to President Barack Obama to achieve the same level of savings under a plan to be filed by March 8. Congress would retain the power to overturn the president’s spending plan by March 22, but only under a resolution of disapproval that would demand two-thirds majorities in both the House and Senate to prevail over an Obama veto." Manu Raju and David Rogers in Politico.

@mattyglesias: GOP: The sequester was all Obama’s idea but also it’s not so bad and we won’t compromise to avert it. #messaging

...But Reid has already nixed that idea. "Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) rejected a proposal, which has support from some Senate Republicans, to allow the Obama administration more flexibility in implementing cuts from the sequester.Reid told reporters Tuesday there was no reason for Congress to cede power to the administration and dismissed allowing individual committees in Congress to adjust spending reductions." Ginger Gibson in Politico.

...Boehner won't put tax revenue on the table, either. "Just two days before the sequester is set to take effect, House Speaker John Boehner will reject closing tax loopholes outside of a comprehensive rewrite of the Tax Code — the central tenet of President Barack Obama’s plan to blunt the automatic spending cuts known as the sequester." Jake Sherman in Politico.

@TheStalwart: People pointing out that the sequester might not be such a disaster may have a point. But what do people see as the upside from it?

Boehner's sequester strategy: Make Obama fold. "Unlike previous fiscal fights, House Republicans feel like they are in a good political position on this one...Boehner’s posture is a calculated risk. The speaker hopes Obama will be seen as constantly campaigning, exaggerating the sequester’s impact — and that eventually the president will be forced back to the bargaining table when the Republicans prove they won’t budge." Jake Sherman in Politico.

Obama's sequester strategy: Divide and conquer. "President Barack Obama broke Republicans once on taxes — and his risky strategy for winning the sequester fight assumes he’ll do it again. He will divide, isolate and defeat Republicans using all the powers of his office and all his skills as a political campaigner." Carrie Budoff Brown in Politico.

Interest-group coalition calls on Congress to stop sequester. "A diverse collection of 22 interest groups has signed a new letter urging Congress to make cuts to the Defense Department on the scale of the sequester but to shift the cuts to different areas of the defense budget...The groups say that there are plenty of pork-barrel projects and outdated Cold War-era leftovers in the defense budget but that members of Congress have been unwilling to discuss ways to target them rather than instituting the across-the-board cuts contained in the sequester." Aaron Blake in The Washington Post.

KLEIN: The case for the sequester's defense cuts. "Our wars are ending. Officially, the war in Iraq is over. The war in Afghanistan is drawing down. Osama bin Laden is dead. Typically, at this moment, spending drops by somewhere between 33 percent and 43 percent. If the sequester goes into effect, the full cut to the defense budget will be about 31 percent. Think about that — during the war on terror, the defense budget increased by more than it did during the Cold War or the Vietnam War, and even with the sequester, the cut to the defense budget will be less than it was after either of those." Ezra Klein in The Washington Post.

Music recommendations interlude: Johnny Cash, "Cry! Cry! Cry!" 1955.

Top op-eds

BECKER AND GERSTENZANG: Limiting CO2 by the power plant. "Electric power plants spew about 40 percent of the carbon dioxide pollution in the United States, but, amazingly, there are no federal limits on utility emissions of this potent greenhouse gas. The Obama administration plans to remedy this situation by drafting rules that would curtail these discharges from existing plants. The president should make sure they are tough. Nothing he can do will cut greenhouse gases more." Daniel F. Becker and James Gerstenzang in The New York Times.

BAIR: Grand old parity. "I am a capitalist and a lifelong Republican. I believe that, in a meritocracy, some level of income inequality is both inevitable and desirable, as encouragement to those who contribute most to our economic prosperity. But I fear that government actions, not merit, have fueled these extremes in income distribution through taxpayer bailouts, central-bank-engineered financial asset bubbles and unjustified tax breaks that favor the rich. This is not a situation that any freethinking Republican should accept." Sheila C. Bair in The New York Times.

PORTER: Medicare needs fixing. But not right now. "It might not be a good idea to try to resolve these questions quite so urgently...More significantly perhaps, some economists point out that the problem may already be on the way toward largely fixing itself...'Twenty to 30 percent of Medicare spending is pure waste,” Dr. Fisher argues. “The challenge of getting those savings is nontrivial. But those kinds of savings are not out of the question.'" Eduardo Porter in The New York Times.

DALEY: On guns, think about the young. "In the past 30 years, more than 116,000 children and teenagers have been killed by firearms. That is 3,800 young people – or 190 tragedies such as December’s attack at Newtown – each year. If thousands of young people were harmed each year by household products, Americans would clamour for regulation. We chide other nations for landmines, child labour and sex trafficking. But when it comes to guns, we have a blind spot." Richard Daley in The Financial Times.

BARRO: Why have conservatives turned against Christie? "What so bothers conservatives about Christie is that he has figured out which parts of conservatism are working and been willing to ditch the ones that aren't. His Ronald Reagan Presidential Library speech in 2011, full of explicit criticism of Obama, also contained an implicit critique of congressional Republicans' scorched-earth opposition to the president. Christie has often intimated that as president, as in his governorship, he would treat compromise with the other party as an important strategy rather than a dirty word." Josh Barro in Bloomberg.

French films interlude: This enigmatic 1961 classic is now on YouTube.

2) Is a Republican civil war brewing?

Republicans feel intraparty rift in VA governor race. "At a closed-door meeting of Republican business leaders in Washington on Friday, two prominent Virginia executives confronted Mr. Cuccinelli for being too ideological to win in 2013, in what will likely be the highest-profile election nationally this year. Much of the unease emanates from the camp of Gov. Bob McDonnell, and especially his lieutenant governor, William T. Bolling, who in an interview called Mr. Cuccinelli 'an ideological firebrand who is outside the mainstream of Virginia.'" Trip Gabriel in The New York Times.

NJ Gov. Chris Christie wasn't invited to CPAC. "New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie wasn't invited to speak at this year's Conservative Political Action Conference, a premier soapbox for Republican politicians, because of his attack on GOP lawmakers for stalling a disaster-relief bill for victims of superstorm Sandy...The exclusion denies Mr. Christie, considered a potential White House hopeful for 2016, a venue to address thousands of influential conservatives who will be at the annual conference in mid-March. It also marks the latest twist in an increasingly public feud within the Republican Party between operatives eager to find new ways to reach independent, women and minority voters and the conservative activists who drive turnout in primary elections." Patrick O'Connor in The Wall Street Journal.

You can see the intraparty feud in the poll data. "[M]any people who describe themselves as Republicans holding decidedly negative opinions about their side...More than one in three (36 percent) of Republicans say the party is out of touch with the American people. (Just 23 percent of Democrats say the same of their side.)...Thirty percent of Republicans say their party isn’t open to change while just one in ten Democrats say the same of their side...Just 69 percent of Republicans have a favorable impression of their party. Compare that to 87 percent of Democrats who viewed their party in a favorable light." Chris Cillizza in The Washington Post.

Humorous interlude: Samantha Bee of The Daily Show had a great bit on sequester "bucket-listing."

3) Bernanke comes to Congress

Bernanke says bond-buying will continue. "Federal Reserve Chairman Ben Bernanke came down firmly in favor of continuing the central bank's bond-buying programs, even as he acknowledged concerns that the efforts might encourage risk-taking that could someday destabilize markets or the economy...In his semiannual report to Congress Tuesday, Mr. Bernanke said the bond buying is helping the economy by holding down long-term interest rates and ought to be sustained." Jon Hilsenrath in The Wall Street Journal.

Read: Ben Bernanke's semiannual monetary policy report to Congress.

...And he wants Congress to replace the sequester. "In testimony before the Senate Banking Committee, Bernanke stressed that the economy continues to heal but that the future of the recovery will depend heavily on fiscal policy coming from Washington. If the sequester happens, 750,000 jobs could be wiped out in 2013 and economic growth be slowed by 0.6 percent, according to the Congressional Budget Office...Bernanke urged Congress to find an alternative to the sequester — which amounts to about $85 billion in spending reductions through the rest of the fiscal year — that spreads the budget pain over a longer period of time, rather than frontloading the cuts." Seung Min Kim in Politico.

Explainers: Floyd Norris on Bernanke's record on unemployment as compared to other Fed chairmen and Catherine Rampell on his inflation recordThe New York Times.

Report shows rising consumer confidence. "Even with automatic spending cuts looming, the outlook for the economy brightened a bit on Tuesday after reports showed that Americans were more confident and were buying more new homes...Sales of new homes jumped nearly 16 percent in January to their highest level in 4.5 years, adding momentum to the housing recovery...The consumer confidence index rose to 69.6 in February from 58.4 in January, higher than last year’s average of 67.1." The New York Times.

Senate Finance Committee okays Lew for Treasury. "The Senate Finance Committee, dismissing some Republican objections, on Tuesday approved the nomination of Jacob J. Lew for Treasury secretary and sent it on to the full Senate for a confirmation vote in the days ahead." Annie Lowrey in The New York Times.

Old computer games interludeSid Meier's "CPU Bach" from 1993.

4) Everything is beginning to fall in line on immigration reform

McCain, Graham report progress in Obama immigration meeting. "President Obama understands GOP concerns about the need to link improved border security to changes to immigration laws, two key Republicans involved in the effort said Tuesday after meeting with Obama at the White House...McCain and Graham both left the White House meeting, which they described as especially productive, saying they believe Obama understands their worries about the border." Rosalind S. Helderman in The Washington Post.

Rep. Goodlatte bends, says he'll go along with guest worker program. "At a House Judiciary subcommittee hearing on the topic of agricultural workers, Mr. Goodlatte, the chairman of the full committee, said that he could support a measure that would offer at least temporary legalization for illegal immigrants who are currently in the country working in the agriculture industry." Ashley Parker in The New York Times.

Immigration detainees are released as sequester nears. "The Obama administration announced Tuesday that it had released hundreds of illegal immigrants held in detention facilities, saying it could no longer afford to house them because of across-the-board cuts that are set to start taking effect Friday." Zachary A. Goldfarb and Rosalind S. Helderman in The Washington Post.

...And here's why that happened. "ICE has estimated that detention costs $122 per bed per day and has been under pressure by immigration advocacy and civil-rights groups to rely on cheaper detention alternatives for immigrants in deportation proceedings who did not pose a security threat. The agency says that the detention alternatives being used include electronic ankle-bracelet monitoring, telephone monitoring, and checking in at a local ICE office at scheduled times." Suzy Khimm in The Washington Post.

The link you're going to send to everyone right now interlude: What it's like to use Google Glass.

5) Christie to support Medicaid expansion

NJ Gov. Chris Christie is going to support expanding Medicaid in NJ. "Republican opposition to the Medicaid expansion appears to be fading fast.New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie will announce his support for the expansion this afternoon, according to the New Jersey Star-Ledger, following a similar statement from Florida Gov. Rick Scott last week. He followed early February announcements from governors in Ohio and Michigan." Sarah Kliff in The Washington Post.

Read: The GAO study.

GAO study finds $6.2T net cost to Obamacare, Sen. Sessions says. "The Senate Budget Committee's top Republican said a new government report shows that President Obama's healthcare law will add $6.2 trillion to the deficit over the next 75 years." Elise Viebeck  in The Hill.

Reading interlude: The best sentences Wonkblog read today.

Wonkblog Roundup

Why Frank Underwood's coup wouldn't have worked. Ezra Klein.

One big question in Europe: How will Mario Draghi react to the Italian electionsBrad Plumer.

Chris Christie will support Medicaid expansion in NJSarah Kliff.

The case for the sequester's defense cutsEzra Klein.

WonkTalk: Will America even notice the sequesterEzra Klein, Brad Plumer.

Citing fiscal crunch, government releases hundreds of detained immigrantsSuzy Khimm.

The coming R&D squeezeBrad Plumer.

Interview: Wade Horn, who ran the Bush administration's welfare programsDylan Matthews.

Et Cetera

Chuck Hagel, our new Defense SecretaryPaul Kane in The Washington Post.

A Dept. of PeacebuildingPete Kasperowicz in The Hill.

Got tips, additions, or comments? E-mail me.

Wonkbook is produced with help from Michelle Williams.

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