Sequestration Stalemate: Some More Considerations

With sequestration’s March 1st start date in sight, Adler and Wilkerson make a good point about why the two parties seem to be treating the imposition of $85 billion in across-the-board spending cuts as a fait accompli. In short, the pain just isn’t bad enough: As the authors put it, it’s not clear in this case that “doing something is a better outcome than doing nothing.”  Certainly, in the lingo of spatial models, the “reversion point” should Congress and the president fail to act before March 1st does not seem sufficiently painful to motivate both parties to the table. I think the deadlock reflects a few other important dimensions as well:

First, Democrats may in fact prefer the sequester to any alternative cooked up by Republicans.  Keep in mind that the sequester protects several Democratic priorities, ranging from entitlement benefits to food stamps and Pell grants. By carving out protection for major (Social Security and Medicare) federal benefits, narrowly tailored education benefits, and low-income support programs, Democratic priorities are partially protected, even with imposition of indiscriminate cuts.  Not only isn’t the pain of the sequester “bad enough,” Democratic legislators would surely prefer the sequester cuts to the alternative cuts passed in December by House Republicans, which Democrats uniformly voted against.

Second, Republicans seem to be in disarray over how to address the impending sequester.  I’ve seen a raft of posts today trying to decode Republicans’ strategy of rejecting any alternative that mixes spending cuts and revenue increases (even when revenue can be raised by cutting tax expenditures).  As Jon Chait today asks:

…Deciphering the GOP strategy is as mysterious as gaming out the plans of a tiny band of warring clans in some mountainous region of Afghanistan. Nearly everything about them is almost completely inscrutable to outsiders. What is the party actually hoping to accomplish in the end? How do Republican leaders think they will arrive there?

I suspect the GOP strategy seems inscrutable because we are overestimating the degree of consensus within (and between) the House and Senate Republican conferences.  In the House, for sure, I see no evidence that Speaker Boehner has the votes to re-pass the sequester replacement from last December, explaining why Boehner keeps claiming that the House has already acted even though the bill died at the close of the 112th Congress.  On the night of the Plan B debacle last December, the sequester replacement bill (eliminating the defense cuts and undoing the low-income protections in the sequester, among other provisions) squeaked by on a vote of 215 to 209, with 21 GOP defectors.  Sixteen of those 21 defectors serve in the current Congress, while over 30 supporters of the replacement bill did not return.  Even if the GOP only suffered those 16 defections this time around, the vote would be 216-216.  That’s the best case scenario, and clearly the Speaker won’t bring up a bill with tied prospects or worse.

That’s the cost of legislating in a polarized Congress in a period of slim majorities: the House majority has to come up with a chamber majority without relying on Democratic votes.  To be sure, the Speaker in theory could pull a “fiscal cliff” and allow a package to the floor that would attract Democratic votes and allow a good portion of his rank and file to vote against it.  But I suspect that Boehner can ill afford another bending to the Democrats, particularly on a vote for which deadlock seems an acceptable outcome.

In the Senate, Republicans are no closer to consensus on their party’s way forward.  Some support granting the administration discretion to apply the cuts more thoughtfully; others reject blatantly handing over Congress’s power of the purse to the president.  We’ll have to wait until Thursday to see what sequester alternative the Senate GOP offers to go up against the Democrats’ alternative that mixes new revenues and replacement cuts.  Reid hasn’t made it any easier by pushing the GOP to agree on a single party position.  Regardless, it appears that Reid and McConnell are moving towards a consent agreement that would require sixty votes on competing motions to proceed to the alternative bills.  The procedure, in short, bakes in failure.  Moreover, negotiating sixty vote thresholds on the key procedural vote- rather than on an actual bill or amendment— potentially allows skittish senators to avoid blame for unpopular party positions.  Senators will be spared up or down votes on substantive proposals.

Third, I think the parties prefer deadlock on March 1st as they think imposition of the sequester will improve their respective bargaining positions on the next fiscal encounter in late March over the CR (the must-pass spending bill for the rest of the fiscal year). Democrats are banking on highly visible and unpopular spending cuts to bolster their insistence on balancing cuts and revenues in replacing the sequester in finalizing spending for the year. (Closing small airports in rural Republican states might do the trick.)  Republicans are counting on the opposite: The public shrugs as the cuts are phased in, deflating Democrats’ ability to replace or delay the sequester.  On the legislative calendar, the end of March comes pretty soon, potentially undercutting Democrats’ efforts to turn the sequester into an unacceptable outcome.  In any case, Republicans might still be far from resolving their internal disputes over whether or how to replace the sequester.  At least for this year (nine more on the horizon…), the sequester might have more staying power than originally foreseen.