Sequestration was meant to be the economic equivalent of shooting yourself in the foot. It was tacked onto the 2011 Budget Control Act as a way of forcing a compromise by the ill-named “supercommittee” that was supposed to come up with a long-term deficit-reduction plan. If it couldn’t make a deal, then the deliberately irrational, across-the-board process of sequestration would ensue — with the heaviest burden falling on the defense and intelligence programs meant to keep the country safe. Of course, there was no deal, and the sequestration meat grinder started whirring.
This game of budget roulette has players from both sides of the aisle. But it began with a deliberate effort by House Republicans to hold the nation’s economy hostage to force passage of their preferred budget package. The first version of budget brinkmanship was the GOP’s refusal to raise the debt ceiling. Then it became sequestration.
If President Obama had been a better politician, he would have seized the high ground by championing the Simpson-Bowles plan to stabilize the nation’s finances through a combination of budget cuts (including in entitlement programs) and tax increases. That’s where many Democrats know they must eventually go, but not too soon, lest they offend Democratic interest groups. Obama needs to step up to the challenge Ryan implicitly poses: How can entitlement programs be cut fairly and wisely?
As sequestration draws near, Ryan has drafted an alternative budget that would avoid the drastic cuts in national security spending. But it still avoids the tax increases Democrats say are necessary for a fair budget compromise. What’s more, Ryan and other GOP leaders have been demanding that the administration announce specific plans for how it will manage the cuts. Presumably, they want to carve out exemptions for defense programs. But really, this is more budget politics, making it appear that it’s Obama’s fault for implementing the cuts rather than Congress’s for passing them.
The White House has refused to play this game. Jeffrey Zients, the acting director of the Office of Management and Budget, told Congress this month: “Sequestration, by design, is bad policy, and Congress should pass balanced, deficit reduction to avoid it. ... The impact of sequestration cannot be lessened with advance planning and executive action.”