President Obama has finally given the dreaded sequester some attention. The $1.2 trillion package of spending cuts - designed to be so punitive that neither party would ever allow them to phase in - is scheduled to take effect March 1. Congress, the president suggested Tuesday, should put it off for a few months, offsetting it with a mix of better-targeted spending cuts and overdue revisions to the tax code that would raise some money. Lawmakers can make more sweeping policy changes in budget negotiations later this year, he said, and permanently turn off the sequester then.
The president’s plan is inadequate but not for the reasons Republicans claim.
In an interview broadcast Sunday, Obama said, correctly, “Washington cannot continually operate under the cloud of crisis.” Just running up to the sequester costs the government millions of dollars in federal projects disrupted, contracts canceled and budget contingencies planned, then replanned, as well as the sorts of preemptive spending reductions that contributed to last quarter’s surprise economic contraction.
Yet pushing back the sequester’s start date, as Obama proposed, would arrange for more terrible uncertainty. Perhaps that’s all he can hope to accomplish before March 1. But it’s no way to run a government.
Republican leaders should have pointed that out, criticized the president for failing to speak up earlier on the sequester, blasted Obama for declining to aim for a bigger deal before March 1 and then offered to strike a more ambitious bargain based on realistic negotiations. Instead, House Speaker John Boehner, Ohio, and Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, Ky., insisted that the only way to deal with the sequester is their way. They would not accept even a modest delay if it were financed with any new increases in federal revenue, they indicated. Their reaction echoes the view that it’s not “balanced” to replace sequester spending cuts with anything but other spending cuts.
But there’s no justification, beyond Republican ideological preference, for an all-spending-cuts approach to dealing with this. In 2011, politicians could not agree on how to reduce deficits - cuts, revenue or both? - so they promised to come up with something later and to punish themselves with sequestration if they failed. When lawmakers do finally hammer out a path to the deficit reduction the sequester demands, it’s more likely that the principle of “balance” would be violated if revenue increases were not included.
The Republicans’ position harms not only the effort to compromise on the sequester but also the broader budget debate. Given the size of projected budget imbalances, the political and mathematical necessity of new revenue should be taken as a given. Until Republicans accept that, they can’t achieve - or credibly demand — the large deficit reduction they claim to want.