David Ignatius: What the election is all about
The politics of "sequestration" illustrate the talent of congressional Republicans, led by Rep. Paul Ryan for being on both sides of the budget issue: They play a game of "chicken" with federal outlays, demanding a balanced budget without tax increases, and then insist that it's the Democrats' fault if there's a crackup.
This fiscal impasse will be a dramatic backdrop for the fall presidential campaign: As Election Day approaches, the clock will be ticking on across-the-board cuts of about 10 percent for the Defense Department and 8 percent for the rest of the government that will take effect Jan. 2, 2013, if nothing is done. Each side says it wants a compromise, but the voters will have to decide who can deliver a bipartisan solution that avoids a fiscal catastrophe and gets the country moving again.
Ryan, the likely GOP vice presidential nominee, and his party want to look like responsible budget-cutters. But from the evidence in the sequestration fight, this will be a hard case to make convincingly. Whipsawed all last year by tea party activists, Ryan and the House Republicans were insistently unyielding. They often looked like wreckers more than fixers.
Sequestration was meant to be the economic equivalent of shooting yourself in the foot. It was tacked onto the 2011 Budget Control Act as a way of forcing a compromise by the ill-named "supercommittee" that was supposed to come up with a long-term deficit reduction plan. If it couldn't make a deal, then the deliberately irrational, across-the-board process of sequestration would ensue — with the heaviest burden falling on the defense and intelligence programs meant to keep the country safe. And of course, there was no deal, and the sequestration meat grinder started whirring.
This game of budget roulette has players from both sides of the aisle. But it began with a deliberate effort by House Republicans to hold the nation's economy hostage to force passage of their preferred budget package. The first version of budget brinksmanship was the GOP's refusal to raise the debt ceiling. Then it became sequestration.
If President Barack Obama had been a better politician, he would have seized the high ground by championing the Simpson-Bowles plan to stabilize the nation's finances through a combination of budget cuts (including in entitlement programs) and tax increases. That's where many Democrats know they must eventually go, but not too soon, lest they offend Democratic interest groups. Obama needs to step up to the challenge Ryan implicitly poses: How can entitlement programs be cut fairly and wisely?
As sequestration draws near, Ryan has drafted an alternative budget that would avoid the drastic cuts in national security spending. But it still avoids the tax increases Democrats say are necessary for a fair budget compromise. What's more, Ryan and other GOP leaders have been demanding that the administration announce specific plans for how it will manage the cuts. Presumably, they want to carve out exemptions for defense programs. But really, this is more budget politics, making it appear that it's Obama's fault for implementing the cuts rather than Congress' for passing them.
The White House has refused to play this game. Jeffrey Zients, the acting director of the Office of Management and Budget, told Congress this month: "Sequestration, by design, is bad policy, and Congress should pass balanced, deficit reduction to avoid it. ... The impact of sequestration cannot be lessened with advance planning and executive action."
Zients offered some chilling examples of what the roughly 8 percent cuts will mean: the Federal Aviation Administration, which keeps the airways safe, will cut operations; the number of FBI and Border Patrol agents will be reduced, making the country less secure; weather forecasting by the National Weather Service will be affected. Ashton Carter, the deputy secretary of defense, said the Pentagon would seek to delay the impact on combat units, but that some units deploying to Afghanistan could receive less training.
And then there's intelligence, perhaps the scariest aspect of budget roulette. James Clapper, the director of national intelligence, said in an interview there could be cuts in overhead surveillance activities and counterterrorism operations. "You're seriously putting the nation at risk, and I'm not being melodramatic," Clapper said.
And whose fault is it that America is pointing the gun at itself and preparing to pull the trigger, absent an agreement before Jan. 2? That's what this election will be about, in part. Ryan and the Republicans will have to explain why, over the past year, they have so consistently preferred brinkmanship to compromise.