Opinion: Sequester debate offers House Republicans chance at redemption

Just when you thought the House Republicans were engaged in a self-damaging demolition derby, they suddenly bring onto the track Jimmie Johnson.

From the summer of 2011 until the end of 2012, House Republicans effectively removed themselves as an entity that the American people could look to for anything other than dysfunction and chaotic misdirection.  They were not seen as contributing to the process of leading the nation. To most folks on Main Street, they seemed irresponsible and destructive.

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After the year-end “fiscal cliff” debacle, it did not look like much would change as the backbench breast-beaters talked with great bravado about how they would not allow a debt-ceiling extension. This was a course of assured self-destruction.

The national media, joined by a president panting for the chance for payback, were waiting to annihilate any remaining credibility Republicans had as stewards of the government. Little Big Horn would have looked like a win for Custer compared to what would have happened to the House Republicans had they chosen to fight on the debt ceiling.

It was therefore something of a delight to see a sudden burst of strategic reason prevail as the House Republicans turned their attention away from the debt ceiling and toward the sequester.

There will never be a better chance for Republicans to accomplish their goal of containing the rate of growth of spending than is now presented by using the sequester as the vehicle of leverage.

One point two trillion dollars, all on the spending side, is not small change.

The House Republicans have a huge opportunity here, but only if they can hold everybody together in supporting using the sequester to exert pressure on core Democratic interest groups.

This, of course, means that Republican defense hawks must be willing to support the effort. The conventional wisdom is that they will not give the House leadership that much running room. But if the defense hawks can look beyond the present to the long-term implications of this critical fight, they should be able to stand with the effort. 

As numerous military and congressional leaders have pointed out, the single biggest threat to our defense structure is the weakening of our nation as a result of the debt’s debilitating effect. 

This confrontation over the sequester will be the first real opportunity to make the debate about spending restraint and specifically entitlement reform — the issue which lies at the core of any long-term correction of our fiscal house’s problems. 

There is no question that defense will be hit in the short term as the sequester grabs hold, but if using it as leverage leads to real progress, the benefits for our nation — and therefore our national defense — will far outweigh any short-term hits.

The House Republicans will hold some serious cards on the sequester — something that has not been true of any of the other recent clashes between the GOP House and the president. They should play those cards and let the sequester go forward.  It is unfortunate that the effort will once again have a confrontational tone.

The president and his party have made it clear to any honest observer that their interests do not lie with controlling the growth of government.  They see revenues as being the solution to deficits. They believe even with the historic expansion of the federal government that has occurred in the last four years — an expansion that will continue for the next four years — that more revenues can always be found to abate the effects of this spending spree.

It will take a House GOP that is willing to unite behind the sequester, and not give in regardless of its immediate effect on defense, to get this discussion back onto the issue of entitlement reform and serious spending restraint. 

If the House Republicans hold together on this, then the Democratic leadership will have to consider reasonable proposals to replace the

$1.2 trillion in discretionary cuts caused by the sequester with reforms of Medicare, Medicaid and other entitlement accounts.  The debate, at last, will be on territory that favors the Republicans.

This is a rare opportunity, especially for a group of people who seemed to be intent upon defeating themselves.

It is, of course, the object of a demolition derby to bang up the other guy’s car and not yours.

With a little luck and some forbearance from the defense hawks, the House GOP may be on the verge of actually accomplishing this — and making real progress on fiscal reform in the process.

Judd Gregg is a former governor and three-term senator from New Hampshire who served as chairman and ranking member of the Senate Budget Committee and as ranking member of the Senate Appropriations subcommittee on Foreign Operations. He also is an international adviser to Goldman Sachs.