From the outset, Washington never treated the sequester with the seriousness it deserves. And really, who would have expected otherwise? The word is a verb being used as a noun to describe $85 billion in defense and domestic discretionary cuts to the federal budget. I almost fell asleep just writing that sentence.
Much of the political press lost interest in covering the substance of policy debates late last century, so it wasn’t too surprising that by February, some reporters were bitterly tweeting about how particularly boring they found this sequester business. The Pack quickly turned its attention elsewhere, collectively freaking out over something Bob Woodward said about something Gene Sperling said about something Bob Woodward wrote in a book that was published more than a year ago, which gave Bob Woodward the generous helping of media attention he craved all along. Good for him!
Meanwhile, Republican leaders in Congress publicly and repeatedly rejected any budget deal that included even a dime more in taxes from anyone, ever, for as long as we all shall live, an obviously flexible position that many pundits believed could be easily changed with just one more invite to a White House mixer. But alas, the invite never came, for if there’s one thing a president who earned more votes than any Democrat in history can’t stomach, it’s people.
On March 1, the day sequestration took effect, President Obama addressed the nation: “Now, what’s important to understand is that not everyone will feel the pain of these cuts right away. The pain, though, will be real.” This led patient political observers at The Washington Post and Politico to wait five long days before penning two pieces with nearly identical headlines: “Did President Obama cry wolf on the sequester?” and “Now Dems worry: Did President Obama cry wolf?” Evidence for the shiny, new narrative came directly from the Post’s own fact checker, who unleashed a full arsenal of Pinocchios on the president for claiming that sequestration would lead to a cut in pay for Capitol Hill janitors. The truth? The president should have said it would lead to a cut in overtime for Capitol Hill janitors, causing them to ... earn less pay. Honestly, how does the man even sleep at night?
One month and 5 billion cable hits on White House tours later, a flurry of great reporting is allowing us to answer for ourselves the question of whether President Obama has “cried wolf.” If we want, we can ask the Americans who are losing their jobs at military bases in Tennessee, Illinois, and Virginia. We can ask the health-care employees facing layoffs in New York, or the contractors in Oklahoma, or the teachers in Iowa, or the workers cleaning up nuclear waste in Washington. We can ask the children in Ohio and Pennsylvania who will no longer receive the early education that Head Start provides. We can ask the scientists and researchers at Duke and the University of Florida who must end their pursuit of discoveries that could change or save lives. We can ask the hungry families in Utah who can no longer rely on the local food pantry, the disabled tenants in California who will lose their housing vouchers, the elderly cancer patients in South Carolina who are being denied their chemotherapy treatment, or the 39-year-old Army veteran in Maryland who believes the only way to survive his pay cut is with another combat deployment.
Better yet, we can ask Republicans in Congress. Yes, those Republicans! Rep. Michele Bachmann, who has likened our government to an organized-crime syndicate, is now upset that the gangsters at the FAA have been forced to close air-traffic-control towers in her district as a result of sequestration. Rep. Steve King railed against furloughed meat inspectors, Senator Inhofe complained about reduced tuition assistance for our troops, Senator Thune is upset that a national campground is closing in South Dakota, and dozens of other Republicans have voiced similar concerns, all without a trace of irony.
The hypocrisy charge is too easy to make here, so I’ll let it lie, in part because I think that many Republican politicians are genuinely conflicted about what their party stands for and where it’s going. Since 2010 the entire Republican economic agenda has been a budget authored by Paul Ryan that cuts far deeper than sequestration—a budget that would ultimately eliminate most government programs and services outside of Social Security, health care, and defense. That means almost all the air-traffic-control towers, the meat inspectors, the food pantries, and the research grants. It means the loss of millions of jobs that are supported in some way by the federal government. Time and again, nearly every Republican in Washington has lined up to support this budget. Now they have to decide whether continuing to do so is still in the best interest of their party and their country.
The sexier 2016 talk has thus far focused on whether Republicans will shift toward the center on immigration, gay marriage, or guns. And yet it’s economic vision that drives votes. Presidential aspirants like Ryan and Marco Rubio are speaking more about middle-class aspirations and upward mobility because they know their party is seen as hopelessly out of touch by most Americans. But while the vast majority of Americans want a less wasteful, more effective government, they continue to reject massive cuts to education, transportation, and all the services we depend on every day—particularly because millions of people are starting to feel the consequences of such cuts in their own lives.
Washington may continue to treat sequestration as a boring nuisance, a Twitter punchline, or one more indicator of short-term political fortune. But gradually, painfully, it is making very real the centuries-old debate about the proper role of government in our society—a debate whose outcome will not only define 2014 and 2016, but generations to come.