Congress and the Obama White House are quaking in their boots over the upcoming $1.2 trillion sequester, which would have already kicked in were it not for the last minute deal to bring most federal tax rates back down to where they had been of the last decade. That deal, which preserved the Bush/Obama marginal tax rates for those making less than $400,000 per year, also pushed up the effective date of the sequester to give Congress time to work out a deal.
By standards in the nation's capital it's about as hot a potato as one can find. The idea that $600 billion over 10 years will be cut from domestic discretionary programs and $600 billion over 10 years will be cut from defense without anyone able to program it is truly frightening to most elected officials. After all, most of them came to Washington thinking that spending other people's money was an essential part of their jobs.
A leftover form the last deal to raise the federal debt limit, the sequester hangs over the nation's elected elites like a sword of Damocles, just waiting to drop. Even the liberals don't like it and are trying to find ways around it.
Writing recently in Politico, the Progressive Policy Institute's Will Marshall said it would "hit the wrong targets, taking unconscionably large bites out of domestic and defense spending this year. The former already has been cut to the bone, and while Pentagon spending can be trimmed, it's not what's driving our long-term debt problem."
The question is what to do about it, which gives the Republicans the opportunity to regain the upper hand in the spending debate. Right now there's talk of modifying the sequester to allow the secretary of defense to determine what the defense cuts will be rather than letting them hit the Pentagon in an across the board manner.
It's a nice idea but it still leaves to much room for political maneuvering and juggling of the books. If they are smart, the Republicans will come up with a package of defense cuts that, in dollar terms, achieves the same $600 billion over 10 years in cuts as what the sequester will do, pass it through the House, and then demand that the Senate take it up. Imagine the outrage from Republicans and Democrats alike as Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid tries to keep a bill cutting defense spending in a reasonable, rational manner from coming to the floor.
It's a fight worth having. Republicans should want to do it because they recognize its good policy that also has considerable political benefits going in to the 2014 elections. Democrats will do it because they have never met a defense cut they didn't like and their constituency groups on the left will demand it.
The framework already exists for just such a legislative vehicle. South Carolina Republican Rep. Mick Mulvaney proposed something very close to this in the last Congress while Oklahoma Sen. Tom Coburn has a package of possible defense cuts he is cheerfully sharing with anyone who wants to look at them. There are plenty of other good ideas out there that, when taken together, can easily equal the total savings the sequester is supposed to produce.
House Speaker John Boehner is a big fan of "regular order," of the House working its will through the official legislative process. The sequester is a hybrid hammer, neither fish nor fowl that was developed as a last resort in a time of political crisis. There is a better way to manage the cuts at the Pentagon—and that's through a specific plan that cuts out funding for wasteful programs, unneeded weapons systems, obsolete military bases, and experimental efforts like "The Big Green Fleet" which, while an interesting idea is far too expensive an undertaken at this point in time. By writing a bill that cuts defense responsibly and passing it through both houses of Congress, the GOP can take the lead on restoring balance and a sense of purpose to the federal budgeting process. The time for such an effort is now.