Even by Washington’s repellent standards of cowardice and blame-shifting, the nattering nincompoopery of the current sequester debate astonishes.
Republicans want you to believe that the more than $500 billion in across-the-board defense-spending cuts over the next decade is President Obama’s fault. It was his idea, they say, and therefore his responsibility as commander in chief to see that these meat-ax defense reductions—due to begin on Jan. 2—don’t occur.
Obama and his Democratic allies in Congress, meanwhile, act as if their hands are tied by diabolical GOP obstructionists who won’t let an alternative to $1.2 trillion in domestic discretionary cuts (half from defense accounts and half from nondefense accounts) emerge to avoid potentially recession-inducing austerity.
Tuesday on CBS, Defense Secretary Leon Panetta, a former chairman of the House Budget Committee who undoubtedly knows better, used the third-person plural pronoun to make it sound as if this entire mess was the work of space aliens, the League of Shadows, Lord Voldemort’s dementors, or crazed economists jacked up on Red Bull, Cheetos, and Twizzlers.
“They said if we don’t do this thing, we’ll blow our heads off,” Panetta told Norah O’Donnell. “Well, now they’ve cocked the gun.”
It’s us. As in the United States.
As in a president negotiating a bill with Congress, seeing it passed, and signing it into law. Basic civics, people.
There is no they. There is no suicide gun. There are only choices and the will to make them. If everyone continues to look for “they,” they will miss the “we,” and that will screw us.
Let’s remember how this got started. The debt crisis birthed the sequester. House Republicans vowed to reject any increase in the debt ceiling not accompanied by a dollar-for-dollar reduction in federal spending. Obama foolishly thought they were bluffing, much as parents in the ’60s doubted their rebellious children would attend Woodstock, hitchhike to Haight, smoke weed, or take up macramé.
Republicans were not bluffing. They were consumed with the political imperative to confront the debt. They believed it was important economically. They knew the voters who gave them the largest gain of House seats since the Great Depression demanded not just action but confrontation. The tea party activism had a ’60s feel to it—confronting the old power structure (not just Obama, but George W. Bush, too) with street-theater protests, antigovernment signs, and a ferociously self-righteous voice.
Republicans rebelled, and the power structure could not communicate with them—not the economists, not the industrialists, not the political scientists, not the lobbyists, not the president. Oh, they were so unreasonable. But they had a cause: taming the debt, or at least erecting the highest hurdle ever seen to raising it. No more brain-dead debt loading.
And in this, Republicans succeeded fabulously. They forced Obama to do what no other president had: Link a pro-forma exercise of increasing the debt ceiling to binding, dollar-for-dollar spending cuts. In exchange, Obama demanded that half the cuts should come from defense if the star-crossed super committee failed to find other means to achieve equivalent deficit reduction. Republicans agreed.
It doesn’t matter if sequestration was Obama’s idea or if he bargained for a 50-50 guns-and-butter division of cuts (he is a Democrat, after all). What matters is that the law reflects legislative intent and political compromise—one set in motion by Republicans rebelling against the establishment and the debt-ballooning ways of old. In that compromise, each swallowed the other’s time-release poison pill.
For a party that prides itself on original intent, Republicans are suddenly suffering a curious bout of amnesia. The sequester and all its contours reflect their original intent—one they persuaded Obama to accept.
Speaking of the ’60s, let’s hear from Frank Beardsley, Henry Fonda’s character in the 1968 movie Yours, Mine and Ours. It’s the story of a widow and widower who combine her eight children with his 10 and have two of their own. It’s a story of blending families, juggling logistics, and making scarce resources stretch—all under the constant familial requirement of compromise. In one scene, Frank talks to one of his oldest daughters, who is being pressured to have premarital sex. He’s against it.
“Life isn’t a love-in, it’s the dishes and the orthodontist and the shoe repairman ... and ground round instead of roast beef. And I’ll tell you something else: It isn’t going to bed with a man that proves you’re in love with him; it’s getting up in the morning and facing the drab, miserable, wonderful everyday world with him that counts.”
The ’60s sensibilities that coursed through the ranks of rebellious Republicans in the debt crisis forced the country in a different direction and forced new choices they are now for some reason pretending they don’t own or have some responsibility to see through. While not exactly the same as some of the shirking tendencies of the counterculture movement, there are parallels.
Republicans want to force the country to choose ground round over roast beef and be able to answer how to do the dishes (FEMA, FAA, EPA, NRC, etc.), how the nation will pay for the orthodontist (health care) and the shoe repairman (boots on the ground). But to do so, Republicans—and Obama—have to accept the drab, miserable world of $16 trillion of national debt and four straight years of deficits in excess of $1 trillion.
That is the world we live in. If Obama and Republicans don’t like the sequester, then sooner or later they will forge an alternative. Acting like a child throwing a temper tantrum and pretending there’s no accountability won’t work.
This article appeared in the Wednesday, September 12, 2012 edition of National Journal Daily.
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