Sequestration and Brinksmanship Politics
Published: Friday, March 1, 2013
Updated: Friday, March 1, 2013 14:03
Full disclosure: I am writing this article before anything has been done to replace today’s sequester. If the federal government is able to get their act together and fix this mess, then please think of this article as merely a cursory study on how we got to this position.
In October 2010, Senator Mitch McConnell (R-KY) said in an interview with National Journal magazine that the number one goal of the Republican Party was for “President Obama to be a one-term president.” This comment became a rallying cry of sorts, and is typical of the mentality behind brinksmanship politics. Effectively, brinksmanship is playing chicken with the United States economy (and, by extension, other aspects of American life). It is when there is a hard deadline and politicians wait until the last possible moment before enacting (very necessary) legislation in an attempt to 1) extort the opposition and 2) make the other party look incapable of governance.
Emboldened by unprecedented, historic victories in the 2010 midterms, the Republicans went on to use brinksmanship politics in 2011 in an attempt to weaken President Barack Obama’s image for the 2012 election. The scenario, as many of you recall, was increasing the United States’ debt limit. This would allow the country to borrow more money to pay for pre-existing obligations – otherwise, we, as a nation, would have to default on our debts. The Republicans decided to take the debt ceiling “hostage,” and would only use the House to pass legislation to increase it if spending was cut and the Bush tax cuts were extended. President Obama engaged House Speaker John Boehner (R-OH) in negotiations and attempted to come to a grand bargain that would involve increased revenues (higher taxes), spending cuts, and, quite obviously, an increase to the debt limit.
Initially, these negotiations went extremely well. Boehner only asked for one dollar in cuts for every dollar added to the ceiling (in contrast, the much-praised and oft-ignored Simpson-Bowles commission called for at least three dollars in spending cuts for every dollar raised via new revenues). Likewise, President Obama was asking for modest – and passable – revenue increases. For a moment, it seemed like the Speaker could control the Tea Party (whom he would come to call the “Knuckle-draggers”).
Then, President Obama called, asked for double the amount of revenue increases, and everything went to hell. Suddenly, everybody was citing the Grover Norquist pledge for “No New Taxes,” and Republicans became obsessed with making the President simply look bad. This led to waiting for the last possible moment to raise the debt ceiling and a downgrade in America’s credit rating from AAA to AA+ (that may not sound like a huge deal, but it does lead to increased interest rates when borrowing money and actually does cause us to owe more).
In this final deal, the President and now-Secretary of the Treasury, Jack Lew, came up with what felt like a great idea at the time: Sequestration. The sequester is a series of automatic spending cuts that will take place March 1 (conveniently after the 2012 election (originally it was supposed to take place during the Fiscal Cliff but was delayed)) and is supposed to be so unpalatable to both Democrats and Republicans that it would force the two parties to work together and replace it with more well-thought out fixes to our economic woes. And, we did! Kidding, this is 21st America; we didn’t (again, at the time I wrote this article).
So, brinksmanship politics led to an increase in our interest rates as a nation. President Barack Obama was re-elected, and the House is still Republican. Basically, it did nothing to upset the status quo.
So, wisely, after the election last November, Speaker John Boehner made a very public announcement congratulating the President and claiming that Republicans were willing to negotiate well in advance of the Fiscal Cliff deadline. However, emboldened by his victory, the President decided to, in Boehner’s words, “annihilate the Republican Party.” This would be achieved by playing brinksmanship politics with them, as they did with the President in 2011. While I sympathize with the President’s desire to hurt his opposition, his decision to campaign post-election and claim that we could fix our deficits and debt by taxing the rich was childish, at best (hint: there aren’t enough rich people to fix our problems). Apparently, in Washington D.C., maturity is a characteristic of whichever party has lost most recently.
Anyways, brinksmanship politics failed again; we went over the Cliff for a few hours and looked like fools, but in the wee hours of 2013 the Senate (thanks to Vice President Joe Biden and Senator Mitch McConnell – no thanks to Senator Harry Reid (D-NV)) was able to put through legislation to avert the deadline that was palatable enough for the House and President. So, the President got his pound of flesh from the wealthy, and the House was able to go home and explain that they merely let a tax cut lapse as opposed to legislating for new revenues. Probably best of all – sequestration was delayed.
But, here we are again, facing a new deadline. March 1 (today), the Government may or may not have figured out how to avert these caustic cuts and replace them with responsible budget-slashing initiatives. What scares me is that we are so close to this deadline and there appears to be a general apathy; the White House has resigned itself to the sentiment that the Republicans will take the blame for the President’s invention, and the Republicans have no desire to work with a President who uses every opportunity to bash them. Make no mistake – Sequestration is a huge deal. The cuts will cripple the Pentagon and will do even more domestic damage to programs that truly need the money. Spending is a major problem, though, and cuts must be extracted from the truly toxic assets of America: Social Security, Medicare, and Medicaid. These programs are noble, but a decrease in generation size forces us – you and me – to pay for our grandparents and parents. It should not be this way – the older generation is supposed to leave resources for us, and in turn we are supposed to leave resources for the next generation. Expectations must be managed, and the three aforementioned entitlement programs must be fundamentally altered in a way that makes them sustainable.