One of the more amusing subplots of Washington's latest (if not most pitiful) fiscal standoff is the greater investment in finger-pointing and history rewriting than in actually negotiating a compromise. House Speaker John A. Boehner is particularly fond of referring to the "Obama sequester," as if the president of the United States had authority over the budget — or there was even much hope that he could force Congress to take action on one.
But at least Mr. Boehner is willing to concede that the automatic spending cuts due on March 1 are "bad policy," whereas many others in his party seemed to have recently adopted the stance that they are not. In one week, about $85 billion in across-the-board cuts go through — cuts in national defense and other vital programs originally designed to maximize Washington's discomfort and force negotiations.
Here's what average people are likely thinking right now: "There they go again." It's impossible for people who have their own pressing, day-to-day concerns of family and work to get wrapped up in another round of "Who struck John?" in the nation's capital. Maybe this is bad, maybe it isn't, people may conclude, but they're not apt to be caught in full panic mode after so many fiscal cliffs and failed budget talks in the past.
But that's likely to change in the not-too-distant future, when people wake up and realize that their elected officials seem content to allow wholly irrational fiscal policy to move forward. There was a time when the GOP cared about the nation's military defense, and the fact that the U.S. Navy has been forced to reduce the number of aircraft carriers in the Persian Gulf from two to one would have set off fireworks. Not anymore. Apparently, Iran's nuclear threat is unimportant compared to the possibility that some tax loopholes might be closed.
Instead, the tea party true-believers are lining up on Fox News to observe that the first installment of the 10-year, $1.2 trillion sequestration is peanuts compared to the entire federal budget. And if sequestration meant across-the-board cuts on the whole budget, that would be a meaningful comparison. But the sequester targets the relatively small portion of the budget dedicated to discretionary spending, so the consequences are severe (as they were intended to be when the policy was adopted as a kind of mutually-assured-destruction budget negotiation placeholder in 2011).
Combine that with the March 27 expiration of the government's latest stopgap spending plan, and things could easily get much worse. Now, many are contemplating a full government shutdown along the lines of what happened in the mid-1990s when Bill Clinton was in the White House and Newt Gingrich was leading House Republicans.
If so, the GOP needs to come to its senses soon. That episode proved a major setback for the conservative movement and gave rise to the low-tax, high-spending policies of the George W. Bush years. Republicans are right to pursue spending reductions, but their strategy is dead wrong. The public expects compromise, so if $138 million is going to be squeezed out of national parks, then leaving $8 billion in oil industry subsidies untouched is not going to fly.
It's like déjà vu. In 2012, Barack Obama ran as the candidate willing to raise taxes to reduce the deficit and won a national election comfortably. His approval ratings are higher than they've been in years. It would be one thing if sequestration was going to solve the deficit, but it won't. The GOP has picked the wrong fight. Republicans can call it the "Obama sequester" as much as they like, but if there's a shutdown, or popular government programs that benefit seniors and the middle class are hurt, who do you think the public is going to blame?
The maddening thing is that virtually any group of rational people faced with these circumstances — heck, you could pick then randomly off the street — would likely do a better job of solving this. Reduce spending where you can and eliminate tax loopholes, too. Tighten the belt gradually, but spread the pain. These are the sort of decisions average Americans have to make every day — and they don't have to risk plunging the nation into another recession to do it.