Sorry, Democrats, the Sequester Is Here to Stay

As several people have pointed out to me, my headline this morning (“The Republican Defeat in the Budget Deal Was Complete and Total”) is satisfying but not entirely true. After all, Republicans did get a continuing resolution that funds the government at sequester levels. Democrats agreed to that long ago.

But I’ve never really thought of that as a Republican victory, because I never really thought there was any chance at all of rolling back the sequester. Here’s why:

  • Everyone agreed to it in 2011. Everyone wanted lower spending. Remember, the sequester was a temporary substitute for a Grand Bargain that would have cut spending even more, and it became permanent only when the infamous supercommittee failed. But the supercommittee also would have cut spending even more. The sequester wasn’t a compromise, it was the smallest, most Democrat-friendly level of spending reduction that was on the table in 2011.
  • Status quo bias is important. In this case, it works in favor of keeping the sequester in place.
  • Upcoming negotiations over the sequester aren’t an example of hostage taking. They’re just ordinary budget negotiations. If, in the end, it turns out there’s nothing that conservatives want badly enough, then Democrats simply don’t have the leverage to get higher spending levels. And it looks very much as if that’s the case.
  • The original sequester cuts were dumb, across-the-board reductions. But that was only for last year. Appropriations can all be freshly negotiated this year, which makes the pain of the sequester smaller.
  • I’m not at all convinced that President Obama even wants to do away with the sequester. He says he does, of course, and his budget proposal includes higher levels of spending. But his actions over the past three years speak louder than words. His pivot to the deficit in 2010 seemed quite genuine, and his active push for a grand bargain in 2011 confirmed that he takes the deficit fairly seriously. It’s true that the sequester is a lousy way of addressing the deficit, but I suspect that Obama thinks it’s better than nothing. If he could negotiate some kind of swap between short-term discretionary cuts and long-term entitlement cuts, he’d do it, but if he can’t he’s not going to invest a lot of energy in fighting the weather.

It’s possible that there’s some kind of minor deal to be made before the CR extension runs out in January. But for the moment, I think the sequester is locked into place. Republicans have never been serious about “entitlement reform,” and even if they were, there’s no way that anything significant could be negotiated within a few weeks. Without that, there’s just no bargain to be had except, possibly, at the margins. Unfortunately for Democrats, the sequester is settled law just as much as Obamacare is. And we all know the lesson Republicans learned from fighting Obamacare, don’t we?

UPDATE: I’m getting some feedback that suggests the Obama White House, in fact, really, really hates the sequester because it hammers discretionary spending so badly. So I might have gone too far in my fifth bullet above. However, I still think the sequester is here to stay, and I doubt that Obama is going to try to fight too hard against it.