Sequester here to stay

In these dangerous times, in this fragile economy, what would our leaders do if they could prevent something that would dampen consumer demand, cost hundreds of thousands of jobs and render our armed forces “degraded and unready?” Look the other way, of course. Two weeks from now, the sequester will take effect, making it official that this is exactly what both parties have done.

As part of the Budget Control Act of 2011, the first leg of $1.2 trillion in “draconian” military and domestic spending cuts will go online on March 1 — something that was never supposed to happen. First, a supercommittee was going to avoid them, then a “fiscal cliff” was going to stop them, then they were delayed for two months in order to be replaced at last, but they won’t be. 

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The cuts are so blunt, so bone-headed, so baby-out-with-the-bathwater that Defense Secretary Leon Panetta said allowing them to come online would be “a shameful and irresponsible act.” Army Gen. Martin Dempsey, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, told Sen. Kelly Ayotte (R-N.H.) when asked to rate the damage sequestration would do to the military, on a scale of 1 to 10, that the cuts represent the maximum damage possible. “From where I sit today, it sure feels like a ten,” Dempsey said. “These would be the steepest, deepest cuts at a time I would attest is more dangerous than it’s ever been.”

With the sequester, the Congressional Budget Office estimates a drop in gross domestic product of half a percentage point, and 9.1 percent unemployment by the fourth quarter of 2013. President Obama warned in his State of the Union address Tuesday that “Democrats, Republicans, business leaders and economists have already said that these cuts, known here in Washington as ‘the sequester,’ are a really bad idea” — but his urgency is brand-new. 

When the director of the CBO, Douglas Elmendorf, was asked in a hearing Tuesday for a “scoring” of the president’s plan to replace the sequester cuts, he said the office had none because it had not yet seen a plan from the White House. 

In his SOTU remarks, Obama called for the cuts to be replaced by a mix of different cuts along with tax hikes the GOP won’t agree to. He made clear the sequester is not the worst outcome, however, when he said: “Some in this Congress have proposed preventing only the defense cuts by making even bigger cuts to things like education and job training; Medicare and Social Security benefits. That idea is even worse.”

But while it’s the height of hypocrisy for Obama to have waited until now to declare that the sequester will make the sky fall, so too is the new message from the GOP that warned about its devastating effects long before the president did. The House of Representatives has passed two bills to replace the sequester cuts. Now, it’s not so bad. House GOP Whip Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.) said on MSNBC’s “Morning Joe” Wednesday the sequester cuts only 3 cents on the dollar and it does so over 10 years. Why, then, did Republican leaders assure defense hawks like House Armed Services Committee Chairman Buck McKeon (R-Calif.) that the sequester wouldn’t come to pass? 

But for Republicans, having the sequester beats new tax hikes. 

“I think we ought to keep the commitment we made,” Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) said this week. “If the supercommittee failed, these reductions were made without raising taxes.”

What they won’t say is that after March 1, Republicans think they can pass something that replaces the sequester when they negotiate an annual budget by the end of that month, a bill the president has to sign into law. If the last 18 months are any guidance, we won’t hold our breath. 

Stoddard is an associate editor of The Hill.

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