When is a deal not a deal? Lately it's when members of Congress are involved. Case in point: a House vote scheduled for Thursday to undo the biggest deal that Congress struck last year—the agreement last August to increase the nation's debt limit in exchange for trillions of dollars in spending cuts.
The deal saved the United States from default and was a rare moment of bipartisanship in a Congress that seems almost allergic to the concept. But the agreement also failed to avoid an embarrassing downgrade of American debt and produced a result that almost nobody likes today.
When Congress took its votes last year, two-thirds of House Republicans, 95 House Democrats, and three-fourths of the Senate voted for the measure, which also created the "Supercommittee," to find $4 trillion in deficit savings.
To give the Supercommittee extra incentive to do its job, leaders added $1.2 trillion in automatic cuts to create a worst scenario for both parties: across-the-board and ruthless reductions—more like a chain saw than a scalpel—for each side's most cherished portions of the federal budget, including an 8 percent cut to domestic spending and 10 percent cut for defense.
But nine months later, the Supercommittee is long defunct and Congress has done nothing meaningful on debt reduction, so the cuts are barreling ahead toward their January 1 trigger.
Looking to head the defense cuts off at the pass, House Republicans will vote Thursday to reverse and replace them with more cuts to domestic programs, including billions from food stamps, Meals on Wheels, and children's health care, with tort reform for medical malpractice added in for good measure.
In an internal memo to House members, House Speaker John Boehner warned that the defense cuts would shrink the military to its smallest size since before World War II. He also blamed "Democratic posturing" for the failure of the Super Committee and accused President Obama and Senate Democrats of "refusing to advance credible solutions."
The ideas of where to get the money to replace the defense cuts have come mostly from Rep. Paul Ryan, who chairs the House Budget Committee. When the committee approved the new cuts this week, Ryan said his goal is not to cut programs to help the poor, but to make those programs work better. Congress, he said, makes the mistake of measuring compassion by how much money it spends on a program, not by what the programs actually achieve.
"Are these programs working?" he asked. "Are people getting out of poverty?"
The new budget bill passed Ryan's committee on a pure party-line vote this week.
Many Democrats, including the president, say they don't want the defense cuts any more than the Republicans do. But they want someone other than food stamp recipients to foot the bill.
“We all agree that the meat-ax approach in the Budget Control Act’s sequester would be bad for the country," Rep. Chris Van Hollen, who heads the Democrats' budget efforts, said Wednesday. "But the Republican plan to replace it protects tax breaks for millionaires and corporations, while putting children and struggling families on the chopping block."
Van Hollen has introduced his own bill to avoid the cuts, but his is paid for with a series of measures that House Republicans have already voted against, including the Buffett Rule targeting millionaires' income taxes and ending tax breaks for oil companies.
The result is as ugly as it gets and all too common: House Democrats and Republicans talking past each other during a debate on a Republican bill that will never become law but will be brought out on the campaign trail as evidence of how bad the other guys are.
Even though the House will pass it tomorrow, Senate Democrats are unlikely to ever take it up and the White House announced Wednesday night that the president's advisers will recommend a veto of the bill if it ever does pass, all while the clock counts down on the cuts nobody wants.
A senior Democratic leadership aide called the GOP bill "an exercise in wasting time."
"Republicans are negotiating with themselves right now. If they want to sit down and negotiate in good faith, we're happy to."
But the signs of danger for the president were evident in the memo the White House sent announcing the veto recommendation, which warned that the looming cuts, which will take effect automatically, will have "a destructive effect" on everything from national security to air traffic control to child nutrition programs.
"The President has made clear that the Congress can and must act to avoid the sweeping impacts of the sequester by passing a balanced deficit reduction package."
The president does not have the authority to reverse the cuts on his own, no matter how bad they will be for the military or the sick and elderly. He needs a bill to sign that has been passed by the Republican-led House and the Democratic Senate, something that seems almost impossible today. But ironically, that is the same duo that passed the cuts in the first place...and now wants to undo the deal they all agreed to.