David Frum

02.26.13

Deciphering the Sequester: It's All About the Spending

I'm among those surprised at the strong Republican unity on the sequester, which absent an unlikely deal, kicks into effect on Friday. But as I wrote yesterday, it's even more puzzling, and a tad bemusing, to see left-of-center journalists and pundits failing to recognize the basic priorities of the post-2012 GOP.

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Ezra Klein is baffled by the GOP's refusal to consider tax increases as part of a deficit reduction deal.

Greg Sargent is less confused, as he urges pundits to treat the sequester bargaining as a non-traditional negotiation. In other words, we're in Calhoun land.

And Jonathan Chait, as part of his ongoing crusade to expose the GOP as the party of out of touch white plutocrats, thinks it's all about low taxes for the super duper rich.

I think the Republican Party’s behavior can be at least partly explained, though not necessarily rationalized. The main thing that’s going on is that, in the face of cross-pressures, the party’s anti-tax wing has once again asserted its supremacy. As has held true since 1990, when conservatives revolted against the (highly successful) deficit reduction deal negotiated between President Bush and congressional Republicans, every priority has given way to the cause of lower taxes on the highest-earning taxpayers. The party’s decision now is simply a replication of every decision it has made since then. ...

The answer to this piece of the mystery is clear enough: Republicans in Congress never actually wanted to raise revenue by tax reform. The temporary support for tax reform was just a hand-wavy way of deflecting Obama’s popular campaign plan to expire the Bush tax cuts for the rich. Conservative economists in academia may care about the distinction between marginal tax rates and effective tax rates. But Republicans in Congress just want rich people to pay less, period. I can state this rule confidently because there is literally not a single example since 1990 of any meaningful bloc of Republicans defying it.

Confidence noted, Mr. Chait, but let's pluck Occam's Razor off the shelf for a brief explanation of why the GOP is using this approach on the sequester.

There's no way the GOP would have voted in 2011 to allow 1/2 of the cuts to hit the Pentagon, and there's no way Democrats would have been fine with 1/2 of cuts hitting domestic discretionary spending. It's precisely because it was so awful that it passed.

Jonathan Ernst-Pool/Getty Images ()

But it also passed because each side assumed it would be able to cancel out the half it didn't like. The "Elections Have Consequences" caucuses were each certain they'd begin 2013 with total control of Washington. Eric Cantor himself thought the sequester was a great political bludgeon to use against the president:

"In June of 2011, the President and the Speaker began working toward a Grand Bargain of major tax increases and spending cuts to address the government's long-term budget deficits. Until late June, Boehner had managed to keep these talks secret from Cantor. On July 21st, Boehner paused in his discussions with Obama to talk to Cantor and outline the proposed deal. As Obama waited by the phone for a response from the Speaker, Cantor struck. Cantor told me that it was a "fair assessment" that he talked Boehner out of accepting Obama's deal. He said he told Boehner that it would be better, instead, to take the issues of taxes and spending to the voters and "have it out" with the Democrats in the election. Why give Obama an enormous political victory, and potentially help him win reëlection, when they might be able to negotiate a more favorable deal with a new Republican President? Boehner told Obama there was no deal. Instead of a Grand Bargain, Cantor and the House Republicans made a grand bet."

There's nothing sinister or unusual about that decision. It is, to succumb to cliche, politics as usual. Cantor and fellow Republicans thought they could use the issue to win an election in order to craft the ultimate cuts as they pleased.

And then the election gave us divided government, meaning the sequester would almost inevitably blow up in our faces. Republicans followed up their November debacle with two more: an inability to fully extend the Bush tax cuts, and failing in their effort to use the debt ceiling as leverage for achieving entitlement reform.

Even still, the sequester will be opposed by the defense hawks, right? Wrong.

Defense hawks have been supplanted by debt hawks, and this policy shift is making itself heard.

Republicans don't like the sequester, but, as Grover Norquist is so fond of saying, the only thing worse than the sequester is no sequester at all. Chait thinks Obama can peel off the debt hawks and political realists and force the GOP to the table. But how?

Republican hawks that count (read: House Republicans) have been largely quiet on the sequester because they think biting the bullet on defense and taking the cuts in toto offers the last shot at meaningful cuts before 2014. They're probably right, even though the decision to accept the sequester is totally wrong.

This is the inverse of the fiscal cliff's tax provisions. In January, Obama won by default. On March 1, Republicans can do the same.

And why give in on tax increases when you can secure cuts without them?