The sequester blame game

The Washington Post reports that, as the sequester approaches, our politicians are focused not on dealing with it, but on attempting to blame ther opponents. No suprise there.

In analyzing the politics of sequestration, it might be useful to separate two sets of consequences for which blame may attach. In the short term, politicians from one or both parties may be blamed for the inconveniences associated with cuts in government services. In the intermediate term, politicians may be blamed for adverse economic consequeces associated with a large cut in spending.

(A third set of consequences would be the impact of the sequester on our military capability. But it’s not clear that these consequences would carry political implications. In any event, this matter deserves a separate discussion).

Turning to the first set of consequences, we can expect the Obama administration to maximize the inconvenience that Americans experience due to the sequester. Accordingly, House Republicans should pass some kind of legislation, even if it’s only a resolution, that provides a path to cuts that are more flexible (but no less deep) than those called for under sequestration.

However, it’s not clear that the public inconvenience will be sufficiently widespread to cause outrage. The media will attempt to make the consequences appear draconian, but this may not accord with the experiences of ordinary Americans. Will an extra 20 minutes in a TSA line from time to time be enough to tip the scales? I don’t know.

If widespread public outrage does materialize, the House should pass ameliorative legislation that does not include tax increases. That action, plus the fact that Obama proposed the sequester, plus what I believe is a presumption that Obama should be able to operate the government successfully while spending 6 percent less should prevent the public from blaming Republicans more than Democrats.

Even if the cuts are managed in such a way as to prevent public inconvenience, they might still have an adverse impact on the economy. Let’s assume, as many economists predict, that the spending cuts, in concert with the tax hikes that have already been enacted, slow the economy (the Post points to a study projecting 700,000 lost jobs and a spike in the unemployment rate of a quarter of a percentage point). This scenario is more worrisome for Republicans — not because Obama would escape blame, but because Obama is not up for reelection, while congressional Republicans (and, to be sure, congressional Democrats) are.

Much depends on the timing of any economic turndown. If it occurs this year, but is followed by improvement in 2014, the political consequences are not likely to be significant. If the economy is in trouble in mid-2014, then all bets are off. For this reason, among others, Republicans should reject out of hand the president’s efforts to postpone the sequester for a year. In any event, the sequester would make the Republicans a full partner with Obama when it comes to the state of the economy.

In the end, though, Republicans are committed, as they should be, to cutting government spending. This is never a politically risk-free proposition. But it’s better to get a head start now, when blame might well be shared, than to save all the work for when (if) Republicans gain control of the government and will absorb all of the blame.

JOHN adds: My own view is that Republicans should happily take credit for the spending cuts represented by the sequester. They aren’t anywhere near enough, but they are the most substantial spending cuts, I believe, in my lifetime. I think 75% of the population will be pleasantly surprised to learn that Congress is actually capable of cutting spending.

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