TO GOVERN IS to choose. By missing Friday’s deadline for averting $85 billion worth of across-the-board spending cuts to defense and domestic programs, Congress and President Obama have chosen not to govern. Instead, each side has concluded that its interest lies in letting the “sequester” proceed as scheduled — and then trying to win the political blame game.
This abdication is bad public policy.
First, it’s never wise to cut spending without discriminating between the necessary and the wasteful, or without regard to the short-term effect on economic growth.
Second, despite the hype about fired teachers and paralyzed meat inspections, it remains true that, by packing the cuts into a relatively few programs over the next half-year, sequestration destabilizes federal agencies — and the lives of dedicated workers who face significant furloughs and loss of pay. This is especially dangerous with respect to the Defense Department, whose leaders have repeatedly warned that national security is at risk.
And third, for all the disruption, sequestration will do little to solve the country’s long-term budget problem, which can be addressed only through a combination of significant entitlement and revenue-raising tax reform.
The blame game’s ultimate loser is as unpredictable as the precise level and location of damage from the sequester. House Republicans irresponsibly refuse to entertain a sequester-avoidance deal that would include any new tax increases above the $600 billion (over 10 years) they grudgingly allowed to prevent the “fiscal cliff” on Jan. 1. Furthermore, the House won’t even vote on a replacement package of spending cuts, as it did in 2012. Meanwhile, the proposed solution of Senate Democrats — a tax hike on income above $1 million — was calculated more to cast Republicans as defenders of the rich than to become law.
A bill by Republican Sens. James M. Inhofe (Okla.) and Patrick J. Toomey (Pa.) would have given Mr. Obama a freer hand to decide where the budget ax should fall, thus mitigating the harm to national security and other public goods, at least in theory. It also failed; the White House had threatened to veto it anyway, saying that $85 billion is still too much cutting, which the GOP bill would skew in favor of unneeded defense items — and the GOP was just trying to “shift the focus away” from its refusal to compromise. No doubt the White House didn’t want to “own” potentially unpopular specific cuts any more than the House GOP does. (Two Democrats, including Virginia’s Mark R. Warner, voted to proceed on the bill.)
Washington has reached a strange place indeed when the opposition party offers the president more control over spending — and he refuses it. Apparently, in addition to its policy objections, the White House figured that a softened sequester couldn’t force Republicans to accept a long-term deal including higher revenue. It’s a gamble that the worse things might get now, the better they will get later. A strange place, and a sad one.