The Truth and Consequences of Sequestration, Pt. 1

Terrance Heath

What if someone told you that a disastrous event is just days away from happening; one that will play havoc with the economy and bring pain and hardship to millions? What if the same someone told you that our government set this disaster in motion, and could easily stop it, but appears unable or unwilling to do so? You’d call them crazy, right?

Well, welcome to the insanity called “sequestration.” Here’s why and how it could trickle down into your life. Here’s the truth and consequences of sequestration.

The Truth

“There’s three sides,” the saying goes, “to every story: yours, mine, and the truth.” Let’s start with the truth about the sequester.

As the sequestration clock runs out, Washington is shifting its from playing the “Blame Game” to figuring out how to put the brakes on Washington’s latest custom-made crisis. Both sides, the White House and the GOP, have their reasons for the shift.

The president has traded the “Blame Game” for the bully pulpit. It’s easy to understand why. Given the president’s popularity and public support on most issues, it’s no wonder President Obama is going over Congress’ head, with a public education campaign designed to raise Americans’ awareness of the sequester — and  how the  automatic across-the-board cuts will play out at the state level and closer to home.

Republicans were already losing the “Blame Game” a week ago, and this week polls still show that most Americans will blame Republicans in Congress for sequester-driven cuts. The sequester’s automatic cuts will Republican-governed states hardest. Facing the possibility of economic disaster in their states, Republican governors are pressing Republicans in Congress to stop grandstanding and start figuring a way out of this mess.

No wonder Republicans don’t like what Rep. Kevin McCarthy, R-Calif, called the president’s “road show” calling attention to the impact of sequestration’s automatic cuts and the roadblock of the GOP’s intransigence to increasing revenue.

While both sides indeed have pressing reasons to turn from pointing fingers to pointing a way out of the mess we’re in, there’s another big reason for opting out of “The Blame Game.” If Americans look too closely into the story of how we got into this mess, neither Republicans nor Democrats come out smelling like roses.

“Success has many fathers, but failure is an orphan,” the old proverb goes. The sequester is one of the biggest examples of Washington’s failure to address the crises facing the country, but it is not an orphan. This failure has more fathers than even a “Maury Povich Show” paternity test could begin to sort out.

Republicans aren’t entirely wrong when they claim that the sequester was the White House’s idea. The sequester was born of the failure of the deficit “super committee,” which was itself a result of the failure of just about everyone in Washington to do their jobs.

The 2011 debt ceiling debacle led to the passage of The Budget Control Act of 2011, which established a bipartisan “super committee” tasked with coming up with $1.5 trillion in deficit reduction measures. According to Bob Woodward’s book, “The Price of Politics,” the idea for sequestration originated in the White House, when Chief of Staff Jack Lew and advisor Rob Nabors brought the idea to Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid in the midst of the debt ceiling debate, as a means of avoiding default while leaving the door open to cuts later on. Ultimately, the sequester became part of the dastardly debt ceiling deal.

So, the concept of sequestration began with the White House. But that doesn’t get us all the way to where we are today, just days away from suffering a major, self-inflicted economic wound. If the Obama administration gave birth to this bad idea, Republicans nursed it, fed it, gave it legs, and taught it to run.

It’s hard for anyone except the most committed conservative conspiracy theorist to think that the Obama administration actually wants the sequestration cuts to happen. Sequestration, as originally conceived, was never intended to take effect.

Now, Congress, back in 2011, also passed a law saying that if both parties couldn’t agree on a plan to reach that $4 trillion goal, about a trillion dollars of additional, arbitrary budget cuts would start to take effect this year.  And by the way, the whole design of these arbitrary cuts was to make them so unattractive and unappealing that Democrats and Republicans would actually get together and find a good compromise of sensible cuts as well as closing tax loopholes and so forth.  And so this was all designed to say we can’t do these bad cuts; let’s do something smarter.  That was the whole point of this so-called sequestration.

Unfortunately, Congress didn’t compromise.  They haven’t come together and done their jobs, and so as a consequence, we’ve got these automatic, brutal spending cuts that are poised to happen Friday.

The sequestration cuts were designed to be so incredibly stupid, painful and dangerous that lawmakers would be forced to come to some kind of agreement in order to avoid them. Unfortunately, that’s not how it went down.

Thanks to Republicans, the “super committee” was pretty much guaranteed to fail.

From the beginning, tea party conservatives warned Republican leaders not to appoint anyone who might even consider closing tax loopholes to increase revenue. GOP leadership heeded the tea party’s warning. All six of the GOP “super committee” members were signers of Grover Norquist’s anti-tax pledge. Republican co-chair Jeb Hensarling, R-Pa., firmly rejected new revenue, and instead laid out a plan to carve defense cuts out of sequestration after the failure of the “super committee.”

A timeline of events produced by Center for American Progress shows how Republican intransigence sank the “super committee.”

It documents the sad reality of both the Democrats’ willingness to bend over backwards — even offering to sweeten the deal with cuts to Social Security and Medicare — and Republicans’ refusal to even consider any deal that increased taxes on the wealthy. The result was the failure of the “super committee” and the birth of the sequester.

Republicans continued to insist that any deal to avoid sequester consist of spending cuts only, with no new revenue. On in the last week or so has the GOP show any sign of movement from that position. Some Republicans are now willing to deal, and Senate Republicans are debating plant to punt responsibility to the president.

Just last week, Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., was willing to put health care reform on the table and take health coverage away from 30 million Americans, rather than consider closing loopholes and raising taxes to increase revenue. Now, with cuts likely to devastate South Carolina (which Graham represents) looming even closer, even Graham is now willing to consider a plan to avert sequester even if it increases revenue.

But that still doesn’t get us all the way to where we stand today.

Pundits and bloggers have dubbed it “The Sequester No One Wants,” loaded with “big, dumb spending cuts that nobody wants to happen.” That’s not entirely true.

If the Obama administration introduced the concept of sequestration, Republicans embraced it. About a month before House Speaker John Boehner gleefully declared that he got 98 percent of what he wanted out of the debt ceiling deal, the speaker’s office created a slide presentation designed to get the tea party and the rest of the GOP on board.

Not intended for the general public, the presentation framed sequestration as a means to conservatives’ ultimate end: a huge reduction in federal spending.

Boehner’s sales pitch worked. Ultra-conservatives love the sequester. Many House Republicans are on record as wanting it to happen. Even Republican leaders and high-profile members, like Rep. Paul Ryan, R-Wis., have publicly claimed to dislike sequester’s cuts while simultaneously embracing them. Ryan has use the same cuts he objects to in the sequester as the “baseline” for his own budget.

The sequester is not an “orphan” in that old proverb about failure, but it’s not exactly an “unwanted child” either. If the sequester happens, it will happen because Republicans want it to happen.

[P]ointing out Republican-caused harms to millions of people — many of them Republicans — does not sway the ultra-right. Why? Democratic pundits say that Republicans want to hurt the president, to show government doesn’t work by making it not work, and to protect “special interests” from higher taxes. All true. But there is an additional and deeper reason. Ultra-conservatives believe that the sequester is moral, that it is the right thing to do.

Progressives tend to believe that democracy is based on citizens caring for their fellow citizens through what the government provides for all citizens — public infrastructure, public safety, public education, public health, publicly-sponsored research, public forms of recreation and culture, publicly-guaranteed safety nets for those who need them, and so on. In short, progressives believe that the private depends on the public, that without those public provisions Americans cannot be free to live reasonable lives and to thrive in private business. They believe that those who make more from public provisions should pay more to maintain them.

Ultra-conservatives don’t believe this. They believe that Democracy gives them the liberty to seek their own self-interests by exercising personal responsibility, without having responsibility for anyone else or anyone else having responsibility for them. They take this as a matter of morality. They see the social responsibility to provide for the common good as an immoral imposition on their liberty.

Their moral sense requires that they do all they can to make the government fail in providing for the common good. Their idea of liberty is maximal personal responsibility, which they see as maximal privatization — and profitization — of all that we do for each other together, jointly as a unified nation.

They also believe that if people are hurt by government failure, it is their own fault for being “on the take” instead of providing for themselves. People who depend on public provisions should suffer. They should have rely on themselves alone — learn personal responsibility, just as Romney said in his 47 percent speech. In the long run, they believe, the country will be better off if everyone has to depend on personal responsibility alone.

Sequestration offers Republicans two potentially irresistible opportunities: the chance to bring President Obama down a peg or two, as well as a shot at implementing spending cuts that the majority of Americans have repeatedly rejected at the polls. The consequences of those spending cuts don’t bother tea party conservatives in the least.

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