This was part of a strategy engineered by the Obama White House when first proposing the plan, according to the venerable journalist Bob Woodward in his book, "The Price of Power." The defense budget thus found itself in the crosshairs.
The notion from the White House was that Republicans would not be willing to accept severe defense cuts, and would thus be ready to make concessions. To the surprise of most observers, Republican leaders in Washington quickly came to terms with the compromise, even the defense cuts. Most of the push to reverse the sequester in recent weeks has come from the White House.
This past week, Woodward got into a verbal spat with the White House, with Woodward disputing the administration’s continued efforts to disclaim responsibility for the sequester, for “moving the goal posts” on compromise.
“The problem is not the magnitude of the sequester,” Bernstein said. “It’s how we get there. It’s horizontal cuts instead of vertical cuts. Everyone takes a percentage hit without any regard for whether is program is effective and efficient or whether it could benefit from a cut.”
The very arbitrariness of the tool, Bernstein added, was intended to be a “sword of Damocles” — a looming threat that would force everyone to look for a compromise on a more balanced solution.
The Obama administration moved aggressively over the last two weeks to slash spending in areas where public reaction is most likely, including air traffic control and immigration enforcement.
House Republicans led by Speaker John Boehner countered with a proposal to grant broad discretion to the White House, requiring the cuts but allowing flexibility. In short, the proposal would have allowed vertical cuts rather than horizontal slashing.
Bernstein is not impressed with that proposal, however, arguing that this would simply have enshrined the cuts without balancing it against tax increases. “It’s just another way to cut,” he said.
A balanced approach requires tax increases as well as spending cuts, Bernstein argues, and by removing the threat of irrational cuts, he believes, Republicans would have no incentive to come to the table.
There is at least one skeptic in all of this. Michael Tanner at the Cato Institute insists that the cuts in the sequester are greatly exaggerated. “It’s not slamming on the brakes. It’s easing up slightly on the gas pedal and then flooring it again,” he wrote in a column at CNN.com.
The Cato Institute also produced a graph suggesting that the sharp rise in federal spending over the past few years is barely touched by the cuts, really only returning to the already high 2009 numbers.
“Most of the numbers cited about the numbers of jobs at risk,” Tanner wrote, “come from industry groups with a vested interest in making the cuts look as bad as possible.”
According to Tanner, “the Pentagon’s predictions are mostly nightmares, meant to frighten. The 2013 sequester would leave military spending at roughly 2006 levels, adjusting for inflation. Over a decade the caps, combined with the war’s end, would leave spending near Cold War highs.”
And yet even Tanner concedes that the clumsy approach will do damage to defense.
“This year’s sequestration should be avoided. It will likely lead to furloughs, complicate procurement and harm readiness. Drawdowns should not be achieved by a demoralizing slash,” Tanner wrote.
Eric Schulzke writes on national politics for the Deseret News. He can be contacted at email@example.com.
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