March 24, 2013
Think the automatic budget cuts Congress ordered at the beginning of March — the so-called sequester — haven't caused any pain yet?
Judging from the squeals we're hearing from members of Congress whose districts are threatened by cuts, the effects are intolerable.
The complaints from Democrats, who never wanted the sequester to go into effect, were predictable. But some of the complaining comes from Republicans who welcomed the sequester as an overdue act of belt-tightening.
Tea Party Rep. Steve Stockman (R-Texas) has decried cuts to the National Aeronautics and Space Administration, which he called "one of the few legitimate functions of government." (The Johnson Space Center, with about 3,000 civilian employees, happens to be in his Houston-area district.) The sequester, Stockman warned, could put all Americans in danger — by hampering NASA's work to protect the Earth from asteroids.
Rep. Joe Wilson (R-S.C.), who became famous for shouting "You Lie!" at President Obama during the 2010 State of the Union address, has argued that a big nuclear reprocessing plant in his district should be spared. Rep. Blake Farenthold (R-Texas) has suggested that all civilian defense employees, including the thousands in his Gulf Coast district, should be exempted from the threat of furloughs.
And dozens of Republicans from rural areas have protested the Federal Aviation Administration's plans to close control towers at 173 small airports, arguing that the needs of plane-flying farmers should come before competing priorities.
It's funny how budget cuts seem more palatable when they affect someone else.
To be fair, not all these protests qualify for the label of first-class hypocrisy. Wilson never supported the sequester; like many GOP defense hawks, he wanted deeper domestic cuts and fewer defense cuts. And there have been profiles in spending-cut courage too, like Rep. John Campbell (R-Irvine), who says defense contractors in his area will just have to get by with less business, and Rep. Jeff Miller (R-Fla.), who says the Navy's decision to cancel appearances by the Pensacola-based Blue Angels was worth the $20 million savings despite the pain for his district.
Still, it was striking that one of Congress' rare moments of bipartisan cooperation came last week as the Senate and the House acted together to avoid an unnecessary government shutdown at the end of the month — and, along the way, to undo some of the most painful effects of their own sequester.
The two houses voted with unusual efficiency to transfer money (within the sequester's limits) to prevent furloughs among meat inspectors, which could have caused hardship for ranchers and price spikes for consumers, and to restore funding for tuition subsidies for the military.
Both were causes that attracted bipartisan support. But both votes also reflected a return to politics-as-usual. They were choices among competing priorities — and, as usual, the squeakiest wheels won.
Nobody's opposed to meat inspection — at least, nobody admits to opposing it. But all Congress' action means is that the Agriculture Department now has to take that money from less urgent programs, the kind of choice legislators should have made all along.
Likewise, nobody's against helping members of the military get continuing education (although serious questions have been raised over whether for-profit colleges give the troops good value for their federal money). Still, the roughly $700 million annual cost of the tuition program is money that now must be subtracted from other Pentagon priorities.
And that's the bigger point of last week's congressional action: the $85-billion sequester is here to stay.
When it went into effect March 1, Obama and the Democrats hoped the sequester's meat-ax effects would be so terrible that the public would quickly force Congress to reverse course.
But the White House overplayed its hand. The Secret Service canceled White House tours to save $74,000 a week, a move the administration knew would hit members of Congress where it hurt, since they distribute tour tickets to constituents. But it also made Obama look petty, and government less accessible, and now the White House says it's reconsidering. Education Secretary Arne Duncan announced that the sequester resulted in teachers' getting pink slips even before March 1, but had to retract the assertion when it turned out to be untrue.
Despite the bipartisan yelping, the sequester has turned out to be mild, at least in this early stage. And now, by selectively undoing its most unpopular cuts, Congress is diluting the effect further. As a result, the once-feared sequester is starting to seem like nothing more than a slightly messy $85-billion spending cut that Congress can continue to tinker with for the rest of the year.
So give this round to the Republicans.
"They may have an advantage at this point by virtue of the fact that the first day of the sequester came and America is still in business," Sen. Dick Durbin (D-Ill.), the Senate Democratic whip, acknowledged last week.
But Durbin said he still thinks voters will demand that the sequester is reversed, once they "understand that there is a price to be paid."
Other Democrats aren't so sure. "There will be a 'frog in the boiling water' effect," predicted Sen. Mark Warner (D-Va.) — meaning the spending cuts will take hold so slowly that voters will hardly notice the pain. (In the end, of course, the frog doesn't come out so well.)
At this point, the Democrats (and many Republicans) just hope to start over. In effect, they want to declare that the two sides are now even — that Democrats won a round of tax increases in January, and Republicans won on spending cuts in March. There's still next year's budget to negotiate, and a 10-year debt-reduction deal that both sides profess to want.
Maybe now, with each side having notched up a victory, they can bargain over taxes and spending levels without the nail-biting brinkmanship that has dominated the last two years.
Nobody's guaranteeing any results. But you can bet on one thing: Nobody's going to propose another sequester any time soon.
Follow Doyle McManus on Twitter @DoyleMcManus
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