If aliens came to earth from outer space in search of intelligent life, Congress is the last place they would look for it. The Republican-led 112th Congress – in a good week, in session no more than two and a half days – let the Standard & Poor’s credit rating of the United States decline for the first time since 1917, failed to pass a farm bill and refused to do anything about assault weapons, global warming or other important issues, as well as voting to repeal Obamacare 33 times.
But, fasten your seat belts. All signs indicate that Congress is about to do even worse: allow the dreaded sequester to kick in on Friday, March 1. That will mean $1.2 trillion in budget cuts over the next 10 years, $85 billion in cuts over the rest of this fiscal year. Cuts will be equally divided between domestic and military spending. And the worst part is those cuts won’t be based on which programs work and which do not. They’ll be across-the-board cuts to both good and bad programs, a meat-ax approach budget guru Erskine Bowles described this week as “stupid, stupid, stupid.” As Bowles noted, “There’s no business in the country that makes their cuts across-the-board.”
According to the nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office, the results will be cataclysmic. Every domestic program except congressional salaries will face deep cuts, including: Medicare, Social Security, Head Start, Pell Grants, customs, border patrol, TSA and nutritional programs for infants and women. The CBO predicts a l.3 percent contraction of the economy during the six months after the sequester takes effect, which will catapult us back into recession.
Outgoing Defense Secretary Leon Panetta warns that equally devastating cuts are already creating a decline in military readiness in the Pentagon: ships and planes not deployed; operations and maintenance delayed; and, even after Benghazi, cuts in funding for increased security at foreign embassies. This week, the Defense Department informed Congress of its plans to furlough 800,000 civilian employees, requiring them to take one day a week off without pay – which amounts to them losing 20 percent of their pay through the end of the fiscal year in September.
Nobody except the most-extreme tea partiers wants that to happen. President Obama doesn’t want it. John Boehner doesn’t want it. In fact, Boehner describes the sequester as a policy “that threatens U.S. national security, thousands of jobs and more.” Here’s the difference. President Obama has put forth a balanced plan of additional spending cuts and tax reform to avoid the sequester. Boehner and fellow Republicans are determined to let the sequester happen. Why? As conservative columnist Byron York asks in the Washington Examiner: “Why would Republicans support a measure that threatens national security and thousands of jobs?”
Indeed, for Republicans to allow the sequester is not only bad public policy, it’s pure political lunacy. But here’s what’s even more idiotic: They think they can get away with it, and escape voter wrath, by blaming the sequester on President Obama. That’s why Boehner calls it “the president’s sequester.” Who’s he kidding?
The sequestration process was established under the Balanced Budget and Emergency Deficit Control Act of 1985, under President Reagan. The same idea – budget cuts so ugly nobody would dare to let them kick in – was advanced in a 2011 meeting between White House and congressional staffers over how to force Congress to take serious action on deficit reduction. But it was then approved by Congress, with 174 House Republicans voting for it, including John Boehner, Eric Cantor and Paul Ryan. And when it was over, Boehner bragged that he got 98 percent of what he wanted. Republicans can’t disown the sequester now. They own it.
Besides, a Bloomberg National poll found that President Obama’s approval rating stands at an all-time high, 55 percent, his highest rating in three years. While in a recent poll, Public Policy Polling found that Congress’ rating had sunk to an all-time low, 9 percent – lower than cockroaches or colonoscopies. Do Republicans really think they can escape blame for a self-inflicted recession? The American people aren’t that stupid.
Here’s what’s most maddening about the sequester: It doesn’t have to happen. It could easily be avoided if Republicans would just compromise on new revenue. As President Obama asked of Republicans this week, “Are they willing to compromise to protect vital investments in education and health care and national security and all the jobs that depend on them? Or would they rather put hundreds of thousands of jobs and our entire economy at risk just to protect a few special interest tax loopholes that benefit only the wealthiest Americans and biggest corporations?”
Unfortunately, it looks like we already know the answer to that question.