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.

DOES IT FEEL LIKE POLITICS IS AT A BREAKING POINT?

Headshot of Editor in Chief of Mother Jones, Clara Jeffery

It sure feels that way to me, and here at Mother Jones, we’ve been thinking a lot about what journalism needs to do differently, and how we can have the biggest impact.

We kept coming back to one word: corruption. Democracy and the rule of law being undermined by those with wealth and power for their own gain. So we're launching an ambitious Mother Jones Corruption Project to do deep, time-intensive reporting on systemic corruption, and asking the MoJo community to help crowdfund it.

We aim to hire, build a team, and give them the time and space needed to understand how we got here and how we might get out. We want to dig into the forces and decisions that have allowed massive conflicts of interest, influence peddling, and win-at-all-costs politics to flourish.

It's unlike anything we've done, and we have seed funding to get started, but we're looking to raise $500,000 from readers by July when we'll be making key budgeting decisions—and the more resources we have by then, the deeper we can dig. If our plan sounds good to you, please help kickstart it with a tax-deductible donation today.

Thanks for reading—whether or not you can pitch in today, or ever, I'm glad you're with us.

Signed by Clara Jeffery

Clara Jeffery, Editor-in-Chief

We Recommend

Latest

Sign up for our newsletters

Subscribe and we'll send Mother Jones straight to your inbox.

Get our award-winning magazine

Save big on a full year of investigations, ideas, and insights.

Subscribe

Support our journalism

Help Mother Jones' reporters dig deep with a tax-deductible donation.

Donate

Share your feedback: We’re planning to launch a new version of the comments section. Help us test it.