President Obama said "these cuts are not smart. They are not fair. They will hurt our economy." Speaker Boehner, writing in the Wall Street Journal, said "there's nothing wrong with cutting spending that much... but the sequester is an ugly and dangerous way to do it."
Beyond that, however, there's little agreement. Republicans in the House of Representatives have taken legislative action, twice recently passing bills that would avoid and replace sequestration with cuts in other areas that they argue would be less economically damaging. The most recent sequestration replacement bill passed on December 20, but would have to be passed again in order to have the Senate take them up.
In the Congressional Budget Office's analysis of the fiscal cliff last year, they projected that cuts to defense spending in the scheduled sequestration are mildly more economically harmful than cuts to nondefense discretionary spending. If the purpose is to allay short-term economic harm, the GOP proposals are small moves in the right direction.
What's important, however, is that if any of the short-term spending is delayed for any significant amount of time, the CBO has said that the cuts must be made up elsewhere, and the cuts must be at least as deep, in order to preserve long-term economic activity.
The White House has been insistent that President Obama has a detailed plan to avert sequestration by moving the cuts around - including searching for "new revenues" (tax increases) in the form of limiting deductions. Bob Woodward, in a Washington Post op-ed today, wrote this is a backtrack on the part of the White House, and that tax hikes were not originally a part of sequestration.
In fact, the final deal reached between Vice President Biden and Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) in 2011 included an agreement that there would be no tax increases in the sequester in exchange for what the president was insisting on: an agreement that the nation’s debt ceiling would be increased for 18 months, so Obama would not have to go through another such negotiation in 2012, when he was running for reelection.
So when the president asks that a substitute for the sequester include not just spending cuts but also new revenue, he is moving the goal posts. His call for a balanced approach is reasonable, and he makes a strong case that those in the top income brackets could and should pay more. But that was not the deal he made.
Indeed, if President Obama's proposal is one that Democrats want to rally behind, they should do it. Democrats - who control the Senate - should take up President Obama's sequester replacement bill and pass it. That would put the onus on Republicans to act (again) and pass their own version of a sequestration replacement and force both sides to the table to hammer it out in conference.
If sequestration is truly the economic armageddon it's being painted as, Democrats could also just take up a copy of the legislation that Republicans passed in December. It's likely that, if Democrats rallied behind the Republican plan, there would be bipartisan approval in both chambers of Congress. But that's not the point of the politicking over sequestration.
Democrats think the Republican plan is worse than what's currently on the books with sequestration. They would prefer to protect spending on the food stamp (SNAP) program and health benefit programs than to see spending cuts to the Department of Defense get re-allocated to programs they like. Republicans, similarly, think sequestration is preferable to passing President Obama's plan - or any that Democrats are likely to come up with. (Democrats have indeed come up with some - and Obama's is far from the worst. Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse and Rep. Keith Ellison's are both far to the left of President Obama's.)
Cutting federal deficits over the medium term is of fairly large importance to the well-being of the United States. What both parties agree on is that sequestration is bad, but it's better than the other party's ideas.
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