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The Insiders: Sequester offers an opening on defense

Congress is away and the president is at play.  Playing with the Republicans, that is, with his daily taunts on the threat posed by budget sequestration due to begin March 1.  Republicans are responsible for creating the sequester in the first place. In the summer of 2011, Republicans demanded spending cuts to offset a debt-ceiling increase and refused to consider new revenue in those negotiations. That standoff produced the Budget Control Act. The law included spending caps and a drastic sequester as a way to motivate a bipartisan supercommittee to find $1.2 trillion in spending cuts.  Included in those automatic cuts is approximately $500 billion in defense spending cuts.  Progressives have been trying to find a way to cut the bloated Defense Department for years and we have never been able to achieve such significant forced reductions.

Thanks to the president, we know that these budget cuts are certain to hurt average middle-class Americans.  Air traffic controllers will be laid off; federal prosecutors will have to let criminals go; child care services will close; federal parks will reduce hours; teachers will be let go; and emergency responders will be hampered.   All of which are bad.

So yesterday, President Obama called, once again, for Republicans in Congress to support a plan to void the sequester.  House Republicans responded by releasing a statement that called for eliminating job training and financial literacy programs and by mocking the very idea of government-funded scientific studies.

Managing the federal budget is a game to the GOP — an ideological game in which defining the winners and losers takes precedence over balanced fiscal policy.  Heretofore in Republican budget fantasyland, the winners were the wealthy and the defense budget.  Combined, the original Bush tax cuts and the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan have made up about 75 percent of our deficit problems over the last few years. The rest has principally been health-care entitlements. The good news is that, according to the Congressional Budget Office, the rate of Medicare growth has slowed to almost zero, and the recent budget deal stewarded by the president cut back on the tax cuts for the wealthy.  With both wars ending, our budget looks more manageable.

So now is the time to be smart. The quantity of deficit reduction over the next 10 years is not the only important issue; the quality of the deficit-reduction measures adopted matters as well. Which brings me to my earlier point — defense cuts.

I don’t want to see vital services cut across the board.  But shouldn’t we rethink this thing?  Are we going to get real defense cuts in a negotiated deal?  We have our best chance in many years to make substantial cuts in defense.  I am not insensitive to the argument that cutting defense means cutting large swaths of jobs at big companies.  But even though the jobs are administered by the private sector, the taxpayers pay for these jobs and I would rather see the investment in infrastructure and education and energy jobs.  It’s a tectonic shift only possible with the once-in-a-decade sequestration.