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The stupid sequester -- and you

February 25, 2013|By Doyle McManus
  • Sailors of the aircraft carrier Harry S. Truman wave on their return to Norfolk, Va., in 2003. The Truman battle was scheduled to return to the Persian Gulf this month but stayed home because of the federal budget sequester.
Sailors of the aircraft carrier Harry S. Truman wave on their return to Norfolk,… (Lawrence Jackson /Associated…)

Tired of the sequester yet?

The automatic cuts to federal spending don’t start until Friday, and even then their effects will only be gradual. But Washington is already in a frenzy over a crisis that the two parties have brought on themselves with a scheme that was -- as I noted in my Sunday column -- designed to be stupid.

The two parties’ campaigns over the meaning of the sequester began in earnest over the weekend. Until now, most Americans haven’t paid much attention.

President Obama and the White House have rolled out a high-intensity effort to convince voters that the sequester will exact intolerable cuts in every state, from big (more than $150 million in education aid for California) to small (child care eliminated for “up to 100” children in North Dakota). On Monday morning, Obama warned governors that the cuts will affect the private sector too. “Companies are preparing layoff notices,” he said. On Tuesday, the president will head for the Navy port of Norfolk, Va., to complain that the sequester forced him to keep the aircraft carrier Harry S. Truman home instead of sending it to the Persian Gulf.

Republicans have been a little slower off the mark; they don’t have the machinery of the White House at their command -- or the message discipline that comes from having one uncontested leader. Still, in television appearances over the weekend, GOP leaders began to repeat their own best talking point. “Surely [Obama] can put forward a plan to cut 2-to-3% from a $3.5 trillion budget,” Senate Republican Leader Mitch McConnell said. “Rather than issuing last-minute press releases on cuts to first responders or troop training or airport security, he should propose smarter ways to cut Washington spending.”

McConnell has a point, of course. If the sequester’s cuts could be spread across the entire federal budget, they wouldn’t be so disastrous. That’s why Republicans are talking about modifying the sequester to give Obama more discretion on where to cut -- a change that would make him responsible for whatever reductions in government services he chose.

Democrats have already denounced that idea as a trap and declared that they won’t fall for it.  They point out that Obama has long offered to enact at least $930 billion in smart spending cuts, almost as much as the $1.2 trillion sequester. (The problem for Republicans, of course, is that Obama wants to pair those spending cuts with $680 billion in new tax revenues.) 

And that’s why there’s no easy way out. Democrats hope voters look at the impact of the sequester, react with alarm and force Republicans to agree to revenue increases. Republicans hope the White House’s alarms turn out to be nothing more than alarmism, and that the sequester’s 3% in federal spending strikes most voters as no big deal.

Which means that you have a vote. How the public reacts will determine how this drama plays out.


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