Friday, July 13, 2012

Sequestration? We Were Only Kidding!

And not only that, HALF the cuts will come
from the DEFENSE Budget!
The big political/economic story of the summer of 2011 was the fight over the American debt ceiling.  You probably remember it - the Republicans were so intensely focused on reducing tax rates on their wealthy and corporate constituencies that they were prepared to allow the federal government to default on it's outstanding debts rather than allow the country to raise the revenue it needed to pay for spending that Congress itself had already approved.  In the end, a political compromise of the sort that has been the mainstay of the American two-party system for decades proved to be impossible, as the Republican party had, in the era of the Tea Party, adopted an extreme right wing maximalist position and really had no political incentive to back down.  So the ultimate 'agreement' included a joint congressional committee that would produce legislation reducing US Federal spending by 1.5 trillion dollars over ten years.  Because there was no reason to believe that the committee would agree on a final deficit reduction bill, the agreement included an incentive: In the event the committee failed, automatic across the board spending cuts totaling the specified 1.2 trillion dollars would take effect - half of that amount to be cut from defense.  It was believed at the time that the threat of this so-called "sequestration" would be unacceptable to either party, and it would force a compromise agreement.  Only, as we know, that was wishful thinking.

Now, of course, these cuts specified by the sequestration language are looming, and legislators are beginning to panic.  The fantasy has always been that you could find a trillion dollars worth of government spending in tiny, painless pieces, using a scalpel to cut away insignificant bits until the totality of the effort arrives at the stated goal.  This is why politicians, even those most vocal about reducing spending, are hesitant or downright unwilling to specify what programs they'd cut, and by how much.  This is the reason that both the Paul Ryan budget and the Romney campaign's economic agenda come with giant "magic asterisks".  They specify tax cuts for the wealthy and for corporations in minute detail, and then proclaim those cuts to be revenue neutral on the basis of spending cuts to be determined by Congress in the future.  And then you get a pony.

So the race is on, in both houses of Congress, on both sides of the aisle, to find a way to make the automatic spending cuts, especially those to defense programs, disappear.  Because, as we all clearly understand, none of these legislators actually cares about the deficit.  The deficit serves as a boogieman, the thing that is preventing economic growth, the horrible monster that will eat your children, the primary threat to America's future.  It is a political construct - certainly, it needs to be managed, but like Social Security, it is neither an immediate nor an existential crisis.

I'm of two minds about this.  First and foremost, I believe that when a legislative negotiation is concluded on the basis of a kind of self-blackmail, where awful things are set in motion if an agreement isn't reached, then certainly the hapless body that found itself at such loggerheads should have to live with that agreement.  Surely they had to know that this outcome was at least possible, and yet they voted for it anyway - did they have their fingers crossed all along?  Did they never really believe that they would allow the cuts to be implemented anyway, so it was a painless and cost free method of kicking the can down the road?  On the other hand, the entire concept of planting land mines in your own agreements so everyone will have to actually DO something is odious and unbecoming.  If Congress backs away from implementing sequestration as it was agreed to, we can be certain that it will never again be used as a way to forge a pointless and temporary agreement, and just might, in the end, have served a useful purpose.

There is something pathetic about a legislative body so paralyzed by ideology and political caution that they feel they have to threaten themselves with an unacceptable outcome in order to even believe they might then act, but when even that threat isn't enough to create agreement, you have a quintessentially crippled legislative system. And now, confronted with the failure of their own last-ditch effort to compel their own action, they back down from their own threats against themselves. We can describe our national problems in political, economic or social terms, and those descriptions would be accurate, but underlying it all is a systematic failure so fundamental as to be insolvable. And that, more than anything else, is why we're doomed.


  1. I'll note Republicans and Democrats alike join together on corporate welfare like the farm bill. (Although they did bipartisanly agree to save money by cutting food stamps.)

  2. True - again, a function of a poorly designed, ineffectual and obsolete system. The agricultural states, with the smallest populations, enjoy a massively disproportionate representation at the Federal level. That Kansas has the same representation in the Senate as California is a ridiculous failure of good governance...