Sequester blues: Congress faces buyer's remorse on defense cuts
With $1.2 trillion in mandated spending cuts set to start in 2013, lawmakers are scrambling to salvage $600 billion in defense spending. Meanwhile, there's plenty of blame to spread around for getting to this point.
J. Scott Applewhite/AP
When Mr. Obama campaigned in Virginia last week, the Romney campaign sent out a slew of statements from surrogates calling the $55 billion hit to defense spending coming in 2013 some variation of “President Obama’s defense cuts.”
During a press conference of House Republican leaders on Wednesday, the list of those whacking the president for failing in one way or another to head off the pending defense cuts was long: House Speaker John Boehner of Ohio, Majority Leader Eric Cantor of Virginia, House Armed Services Committee Chairman Buck McKeon and Mr. Romney’s top liaison to Capitol Hill, Rep. Cathy McMorris Rodgers of Washington.
In the Senate on that same day, two prospects for Romney’s vice presidential slot – Sen. Kelly Ayotte (R) of new Hampshire and Sen. John Thune (R) of South Dakota – lambasted the president and the Senate’s Democratic leadership for a lack of leadership on the issue.
But there’s just one problem with that analysis: With the exception of Senator Ayotte, every member of Congress listed above voted for the legislation that put the sequester into place.
And that’s not something that’s lost on some of the GOP’s most conservative members on the Hill.
“When it comes to the issue of sequestration, it’s giving me a bit of a heartburn because those people who are complaining about it were those people who caused it,” said Rep. Jeff Landry (R) of Louisiana on Thursday at a forum with several other conservative members of Congress. “The people who voted to raise the debt ceiling caused the sequestration."
The defense reductions are roughly one half of what is known as the “sequester,” the automatic spending reductions mandated by the Budget Control Act, the compromise legislation that ended last summer’s debt-ceiling fight. That legislation increased America’s loan limit in exchange for imposing spending caps on the next 10 years of federal budgets and creating the “sequester” to slash government spending by predetermined amounts (about $1.2 trillion over the next decade) even further if Congress couldn’t agree to deeper cuts.
Congress couldn’t find a formula for offsetting those reductions and so they’re slated to hit the economy come Jan. 1.
To hear Republican leaders tell it, this is Obama’s fault.
“The sequester is happening because the president didn’t lead,” said Speaker Boehner on Thursday. “He wanted an increase in the debt ceiling, without spending cuts and reforms that are truly needed to reduce our deficit and our debt. He wanted an increase in the debt ceiling so that he wouldn’t have to deal with it twice before his election. So rather than agree to tax and entitlement reforms that everyone knows are needed, the president and Senate Democrats gave us the sequester, promising that the cuts would never actually happen.”
And if not Obama, then certainly a Democratic Senate that hasn’t passed a budget in three years.
“If we had done a budget for this country, and the Senate Budget Committee functioned in the way it was intended to function, then we wouldn't in this situation in the first place,” Senator Ayotte said on the Senate floor on Thursday.
That’s certainly true, House conservatives say. But they’re quick to note that Republican leadership went along with the entire plot.
“I think it’s completely hypocritical for the people who voted to raise the debt ceiling, who voted for sequestration, now to be calling it ‘devastating,’” said Rep. Justin Amash (R) of Michigan, a libertarian lawmaker who frequently bucks his party for not being stringent enough on spending.
The sequester cuts were, by intent, so odious that they should never come into existence, according to the bipartisan group of legislators who put them into place after extensive negotiation with the White House. The aim was to create a package of mandated cuts so vile that Congress would have no choice but to figure out a way to cut spending or raise taxes to substitute in their place. But some congressional Republicans thought this was a facade, a way to promise future cuts that Congress would find a way to avoid when their time was nigh.
With many of their own party decrying the defense cuts as an impossible outcome – and Democrats up in arms about cuts to discretionary spending that hit key Democratic priorities in social services – they have a sense of sad validation now.
“I hate to be the one to say “I told you so,”’ said Representative Landry, who proceeded to tell everyone ‘so’. “We told you we were going to get downgraded. It happened. We told you that the super committee was going to be a super failure. It happened.”
Even some of the tactics their party has taken to push avoiding the cuts leave House conservatives shaking their heads. As congressional Republican leaders heralded a study by a defense industry association group showing more than 1 million jobs could be lost as a result of the sequester, conservative House members were befuddled: “I thought we believed as Republicans that government spending doesn’t create jobs at all?” asked Rep. Raul Labrador (R) of Idaho.
“I am just so disappointed with Republicans that are making the argument that we cannot cut the military because military-defense spending creates jobs,” said Representative Labrador. “We need to spend money on the military because we need to defend our nation. We need to spend money on education because we need to educate our children. We need to spend money on welfare because we need to protect the most vulnerable. It’s not to create jobs or create a culture of dependency.”
In some ways, they argue, the sequester drama is the sort of out-of-touch, inside-the-beltway fiasco they were sent to Washington by their tea party supporters to change. “This is exactly what’s wrong with Washington and what’s wrong with America. There’s no accountability. We write a rule in Washington, of course against [conservative members’] wishes, and then when Washington doesn’t like the rule or they feel they can’t live with it, they just change it,” Landry said.
“But you know... [Americans] don’t get to change their rules,” he said. “When the bank calls, they don’t get to change their mortgage payment. They don’t get to call American Express and say ‘I really didn’t want to make these kind of payments.’ They don’t get to change their rules. They have to live by economic rules and it's time for this town to start doing the same.”