President Obama on Tuesday finally gave the dreaded sequester some attention. The $1.2 trillion package of spending cuts — which were designed to be so punitive that neither party would ever allow them to phase in — is scheduled to begin on March 1, and it would deal unnecessary pain to the country. So, the president suggested, put it off for a few months, offsetting it with a mix of better-targeted spending cuts and overdue revisions to the tax code that would raise some money. Congress can make more sweeping policy changes in budget negotiations later this year, and permanently turn off the sequester then.
The president’s plan isn’t a great solution, but not for the reasons Republicans are claiming.
In an interview aired on Sunday, Obama said, correctly, that “Washington cannot continually operate under the cloud of crisis.” Just running up to the sequester has major consequences, costing the government millions of dollars in federal projects disrupted, contracts violated and budget contingencies planned, then replanned — not to mention preemptive spending reductions of the sort that contributed to last quarter’s surprise economic contraction. Yet the president’s proposal would arrange for more terrible uncertainty, just pushing back the sequester’s start date a bit. Perhaps that’s all he can hope to accomplish before March 1. But it’s no way to run a government.
Republican leaders should have pointed that out, criticized the president for failing to speak up much on the sequester until now, blasted Obama for declining to aim for a bigger deal before March 1, and then offered to strike a more ambitious bargain based on realistic negotiations. Instead, House Speaker John A. Boehner (R-Ohio) and Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) insisted that the only way to deal with the sequester is their way, indicating that they would not accept even a modest delay if it were financed with any new increases in federal revenue. “Republicans are right,” Post blogger Jennifer Rubin wrote, “that it is not balanced to replace an all-spending cuts sequester with a mix of spending and tax hikes.”
But there’s no justification — beyond Republican ideological preference — for an all-spending cuts approach to dealing with the sequester. Certainly not history: Congress did not commit the country to a sequester-sized package of spending cuts when lawmakers established it in 2011, just to deficit reduction of some kind. That was the point. Politicians could not agree on how to reduce deficits — cuts, revenue or both? — so they promised to come up with something later and to punish themselves with sequestration if they failed. When lawmakers finally hammer out a way to achieve the deficit reduction the sequester demands, then, the principle of “balance” would more likely be violated if revenue increases were not included.
The Republicans’ position harms not only the effort to compromise on the sequester, but also the broader budget debate. Given the size of projected budget imbalances, the political and mathematical necessity of new revenues should be taken as a given. Until Republicans accept that, they can’t achieve — or credibly demand — the large deficit reduction they claim to want.