Happy Sequester Day: Small Spending Reductions Have Taken Effect

sequester panic

EVERYBODY PANIC!!! Well, not really. Today should be just another day. But unfortunately, the rhetoric over the sequester — $44 billion in spending cuts in the current fiscal year (not the $85 billion that has been reported) — has been pushed into overdrive. Who would’ve thought that a 1% cut in the rate of spending increases would cause this much fuss? It’s not even a real budget cut, when it all comes down to it.

While President Obama is depending on the American public to side with him on forgoing the sequester, polls don’t seem to bear that out, according to Aaron Blake and Sean Sullivan at the Washington Post:

In Washington, Republicans and Democrats have been at loggerheads over how best to avert sequestration. In the rest of the country, a remarkably high percentage of Americans take a different view: Bring it on.

Thirty-seven percent of Americans said they would tell their member of Congress to let the deep federal spending cuts known as sequestration go into effect as scheduled, according to a Gallup poll released on Wednesday, while nearly one in five had no opinion. A plurality (45 percent) said they would like to see Congress pass a measure to avert the cuts, but that’s hardly a decisive figure that reflects the alarm bells the Obama administration has been sounding the last couple of weeks.

The public was similarly divided in a Pew Research Center/USA Today poll released last week. Four in 10 Americans said President Obama and Congress should let the cuts go into effect if they cannot reach a deal to avoid them by March 1. Forty-nine percent said the cuts should be delayed.

The reason for the lack of alarm? Blake and Sullivan note that Americans “simply haven’t tuned into the debate” over the sequester. “In the Gallup poll, 38 percent said they were not following the story too closely or at all closely,” wrote the pair. “An even higher percentage of Americans — 48 percent — said the same thing in a Washington Post-Pew poll released earlier this week. It’s hard to strongly oppose cuts you don’t really know that much about.”

And despite their absolutely horrible messaging on the sequester, Republicans may have actually won an important battle. NBC News’ First Read explained yesterday that, unlike the “fiscal cliff” fight, the White House doesn’t really have the high-ground right now (emphasis mine):

The law was on the president’s ideological side at the end of 2012. That’s why the GOP broke on taxes. In this case, the law is on the Republicans’ ideological side. It is easier for them to defend the sequester at home because they can say, “We said we’d cut spending and the size of government, the president tried to stop us but we wouldn’t let him.” A bad spending cut for many Republicans is easier to defend than any supposed fair tax hike on anyone. So if the White House really wants to stop the sequester, they might have to come up with their own set of $85 billion in spending cuts for this year to replace it. In this political environment, there is no way Boehner, McConnell and Cornyn can politically survive doing anything short of that. The president can still get more revenue down the road on tax reform, but he may have to fold on sequester if he wants a chance at winning in the long run. But that’s also a hard thing to ask a president who just won re-election on this very issue.

While the budget is the next big fight, and tax reform is sure to play a role there, it’s doubtful that they’ll even be able to push through anything substantive due to gridlock. It’s likely, given the last four years, that we’ll see another resolution carrying over spending — which would be another win for House Republicans because it’ll restrain growth — rather than getting a budget through the Senate.

The sequester is just a good first start to actually doing something with the budget, but as long as House Republicans hold strong, these reductions in spending are one of the few things Congress has actually gotten right in the last few years. Of course, the only sobering part of it is that we’re still staring down $9.49 trillion in budget deficits over the next 10 years.

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