Be careful what you ask for – you might just get it
By John D. Turner
22 Feb 2013

The sequester is looming. Unless congress and the president act before 1 March, automatic across-the-board spending cuts will take effect, affecting both the Department of Defense and numerous domestic spending programs. Indeed, the Pentagon informed Congress today of its intention to furlough 800,000 civilian workers for 22 working days, one day per week through the end of the fiscal year in September, representing a 20% cut in pay, if sequestration happens.

As one of those 800,000 workers I am just a little concerned.

The President has been leading with his mouth. He is presently touring the country, giving campaign-style speeches, and blaming Republicans for ”refusing to compromise.” Personally, I think he should be back in Washington, meeting with congressional leaders and hammering out a deal if, of course, he really is as concerned as he says he is. But that just isn’t his style. The last time he tried that is when they came up with the sequester in the first place. The president is more into polishing his golf game (he played another round this weekend), and criticizing Congress while he jaunts around the country raising money to fund his re-election campaign.

Re-election campaign? Isn’t this his second term of office? Isn’t he limited to two terms by the 22nd amendment? Well, yes he is. But a quick stroke of the pen and volla! Obama for America, his campaign organization, transforms into a non-profit, social welfare organization calling itself “Organizing for Action,” working to further his political agenda from outside the Democratic Party utilizing the same organization, extensive collection of data, and manpower used to get him re-elected. And as a 501(C)(4), the group can raise an unlimited amount of money from any sort of donor, union, individual, or corporation.

And they don’t have to disclose who their donors are either, although this most transparent of any administration in history says that they will, although they have not decided on the timeline for that just yet.

Remember when the President said that if Congress refused to do what he wanted that he would simply go around them? This apparently is one of the ways he had in mind. With a big enough pile of money, many things are possible. And whereas it is evil for corporations to attempt to “buy votes” by lobbying congress critters, if a non-profit arm of a political party does so why it’s just politics by other means; as long as the motive is pure, what’s the harm? And of course, anything the President or Democratic Party wants is by definition, pure and good for the country. Republicans are evil, greedy bastards, remember? All they want to do is screw the middle class, further enrich their already obscenely rich capitalist business cronies, and throw grandma out in the street to eat dog food. I have been hearing that for, gosh, must be going on four decades now.

But, nothing wrong with that! The President, like all good politicians from Cook County, Illinois, is just a smart politician. The ends justify the means, right?

So how did all this come to pass in the first place? How could something as evil as the sequester happen? Surely it had to be something proposed by Republicans and rammed down the President’s throat in the middle of the night while the poor man slept. Why else would the President sign a bill containing something like the sequester unless a dastardly Republican congress had the votes to pass the bill anyway over his veto?

Remember the way legislation happens in this Republic called the United States of America? The House passes a bill. The Senate passes a bill. The bills are sent to a committee to be reconciled (because there are usually differences). The final bill goes to the President to be signed. He either signs it, or vetoes it. If he vetoes it, the bill can still become law if it can pass both Houses of Congress by a 2/3 majority. That is called “overriding the veto.” Quick and dirty civics 101 lesson that I am sure everyone had in High School at one time or another.

So, is that what happened? Well, not exactly. First off, the Republicans don’t control both houses of congress. They hold the House of Representatives, but not the Senate. And even in the House, they could not muster a 2/3 majority to override a presidential veto. So how did the sequestration come about?

It all goes back to the Budget Control Act of 2011. The United States was bumping up against its debt ceiling (again). This is the limit on the amount of money the government is allowed to borrow; you can think of it like the limit on your credit card. Except unlike a credit card limit, this limit can be increased when you max the card, as long as the Congress is willing to pass a bill to increase the limit. Wouldn’t it be great if you could do that with your credit card? Just charge it up to the max, and then when you reach the max, be able to just arbitrarily raise it still higher and keep borrowing? And never have to pay any of it back ever?

As the limit was already $14.3 trillion, Republicans in the House balked at raising it further, insisting that before they would agree to do so, the Democrats in the Senate had to agree to actual spending cuts to offset the increase. You know, the sort of “responsible” government that Democrats always insisted on when Republicans were in power?

The President agreed to hold closed-door negotiations with House Speaker Boehner on the subject. Unfortunately they were unable to come to an agreement. With the debt ceiling having been reached, and default looming (at least that is what we were supposed to believe), Congress came to a compromise; $1.2 trillion in budget cuts spread over 10 years, and the creation of a Joint Select Committee on Deficit Reduction, aka “the super-committee” charged with the task of finding another $1.2 trillion in cuts. They had until 23 Nov 2011 to complete this task at which point their proposal, which had great latitude in that it could include tax increases, spending reductions, or both, would get a filibuster-proof up-or-down vote in Congress.

That was the velvet glove. The iron fist, which was to ensure that some sort of agreement would be reached, was that if they couldn’t agree, or Congress voted against the agreement, then automatic across-the-board spending cuts would go into effect; half targeting defense, half against domestic spending programs, to cover the $1.2 trillion in agreed upon spending cuts. This is what is now known as “sequestration,” part of the Budget Control Act of 2011, passed on 2 August 2011.

According to Bob Woodword in his book “The Price of Politics,” the idea for the sequester was the co-brainchild of Jack Lew, the director of the Office of Management and Budget and Rob Nabors, the president’s legislative affairs director. They brought the idea to Harry Reid, the Senate Majority Leader on 27 July 2011. The idea was that the defense cuts would be so onerous to Republicans and likewise the domestic cuts to Democrats that the two sides would have to come to some sort of agreement. With the debt ceiling having been reached and default looming members of both parties voted for the agreement and the president signed it into law.

Unfortunately, it didn’t work out that way. The committee was unable to come to an agreement. After they informed the president of this, Mr. Obama held a press conference, in which he stated that he would “veto any attempt to get rid of the automatic cuts,” aka sequestration, which were now set to take place at the beginning of January, 2013.

2011 becomes 2012, an election year. Congress critters are busy with many things, including re-election. No decision is reached. The sequester looms closer and closer; the 800 pound gorilla in the room that no one seems to want to talk about. Congress will act, everyone says; the president won’t let this happen. Indeed, in the final Presidential debate leading up to the election, the president said concerning the sequester, “First of all, the sequester is not something that I’ve proposed. It is something that Congress has proposed. It will not happen.” The statement shocked many, who saw it as the president giving up his strongest bargaining chip in the budget debate; the automatic cuts that would force Republicans to do what he wanted.

There were also those who questioned the president’s veracity on the statement, including Mr. Woodward, who stated in an interview with POLITICO “what the president said is not correct. He’s mistaken. And it’s refuted by the people who work for him.” Mr. Woodward did allow however that it was possible that the president was unaware of how the idea came about because “it’s a complicated process – and in fairness to the president – maybe he didn’t know that they were doing this because it’s kind of technical budget jargon.” Maybe. But then again, it is the president’s job to know, to be informed. Do you think that George Bush would have gotten a pass on this in his administration?

And being as he signed it into law, doesn’t that make it his? I mean, ALL legislation is passed by congress. The president takes credit for the legislation he likes because it happened on his watch and he signed it. Likewise, isn’t the president responsible for legislation he passes that he doesn’t like as well? And if it were that unpalatable to him, why didn’t he get together with congress and, no matter how long it took, hammer out some sort of compromise that he could agree with? But no, he just sits back, tells congress to “act” and ignores the whole thing, except to comment from time to time on how the Republicans are “doing nothing,” when in fact the only house of congress that actually is passing legislation is the Republican-led House of Representatives. The Democrat-led Senate is deafening in its silence, seemingly incapable of even passing a budget in the past four years. As a taxpayer, I have to wonder exactly why Harry Reid is drawing a salary, since he doesn’t seem to be doing anything at all.

Of course he is though. He is doing exactly what the president wants. By doing nothing, the only part of congress making the news is the House. This leads people to think that the Republicans in fact control the congress when they don’t. Thus, when the president says that “congress is not doing its job,” people translate that into “Republicans are not doing their job.” When the president says “congress is failing to act,” the people translate that into “Republicans are failing to act.” So when the president says “Congress is to blame,” the people say “damn those Republicans!” Recent man-on-the-street interviews revealed that the average person knows the name John Boehner and Mitch McConnell. Heck, they all know who Sarah Palin is as well! But Harry Reid? Nancy Pelosi? They draw a blank; never heard of them, either one.

So now it’s 2013 and the sequester, temporarily shoved back a couple months, now will take place, again, if congress fails to act, on 1 March. The finger pointing has begun in earnest again, each side blaming the other; the president blaming Republicans and Republicans blaming the White House. Once again, the Senate is nowhere to be found.

The big problem with the sequester isn’t so much the amount of the cuts; painful as they are, they can be absorbed. It is the way the cuts are mandated to occur; across the board, meat-cleaver cuts without regard to what makes sense to cut and what does not. That and the fact that we are now half-way through FY 13 which means that the $44 billion in cuts ($22 billion to defense, $22 billion to domestic programs) programmed for this fiscal year will have to be taken over 6 months instead of being spread over 12. Republicans in the House have tried twice to replace the sequester with a more reasonable way of cutting the same amount of money, but the Senate refuses to take up the proposals which are always regarded as “dead on arrival,” without so much as even a hint of debate.

This lack of desire to act on the part of Democrats in the Senate, coupled with the lack of desire on the part of the president to sit the two sides down together and find a compromise that both can live with leads me to believe that there is no desire on the part of Democrats to actually find a way out of this seeming morass. As the president said today concerning the sequester that “it doesn’t have to happen. All Republicans have to do is accept that increases in revenue (i.e, taxes) are needed.” Not Republicans and Democrats need to compromise or Republicans and Democrats need to come to an agreement. No, Republicans need to toe the line.

Previously the president has said that “spending isn’t the problem; the problem is insufficient revenue. “ Translation: we aren’t spending too much, you, America, are paying too little. This despite the fact that spending hasn’t decreased since the first stimulus bill was passed. I thought the “stimulus” was supposed to be a one-time emergency thing, passed in such a hurry that we couldn’t even take the time to read the bill we were signing because it was so all-fired important. I remember Nancy Pelosi saying we had to pass the bill quickly so we could find out what was in it.

Instead, the stimulus level of spending has become the new normal. Indeed, it seems that hardly a week goes by without the president trotting out some new government spending plan. I would call them proposals, but they are hardly that. They spring forth like Athena, full grown, from the mind of Zeus. “Investment,” he calls it.

I think a game is being played here, and the American public, particularly federal employees, are the game pieces. I have been around awhile. I have seen cuts and sequesters before. This is the first time that I have seen the DoD (or anyone) ready to furlough 800,000 federal workers. And for what? A $22 billion cut from a budget of $716 billion? A total of $44 billion in cuts out of $3.8 trillion is causing a panic and bringing the government to its knees?

Even the total, $1.2 trillion over 10 years is insignificant compared to the projected spending over the same period. If there were no increase at all in federal spending over the next 10 years, total outlays would be $38 trillion; $1.2 trillion in cuts is peanuts. We need to cut significantly more than that to even begin to get things in balance. Which is what Republicans are saying and Democrats, and the media, are ignoring.

The trillion dollar difference between what the government takes in and what it spends will not be made up by “taxing the rich” some more, no matter what the president says. He has already been proven a liar when he said your taxes would not go up; did you notice less money in your paycheck in January? He said he wouldn’t raise taxes on the middle class. Have you suddenly become rich overnight?

The sequester is the perfect political football. First, it targets government workers. No one really cares much what happens to them in the first place. The media has prepared the infowar battlespace well. Last year we heard all about federal workers making over 100,000 a year while millions of Americans were either out of work or under employed, and the “average” American is making only around $50,000 a year. “Underworked and overpaid” seems to be the conventional wisdom I hear; there won’t be many tears shed by most folks if Federal workers take a 20% pay cut.

Second, it falls primarily on Defense Department workers. Back in the 1960’s when LBJ was president one of the first things he did upon taking office was to close Brookley AFB in Mobile, Alabama. At the time Brookley was the largest depot in DoD and a major employer for the city of Mobile. Stuff was shipped all over the world from Brookley; it was the only base with a major railhead, deep water port facilities and runways capable of handling the largest aircraft built. Why did he close it? Did the military suddenly no longer need it? Nope! It was closed because Alabama voted Republican in that election and this was his way of exacting revenge on the state of Alabama.

How does this fit today? The bulk of government workers voted for President Obama in the last election, with the exception of the DoD which went majority Republican. In this manner President Obama, Chicago politician, exacts his revenge. 800,000 DoD workers are going to be upset. And thanks to ABC, NCB, CBS, CNN, MSNBC and all the others in the MSM, they know exactly whom to blame; the Republicans. By the 2014 elections they will know exactly how to avoid such things in the future – vote Democrat. And if somehow they don't get it (many watch FOX News and so aren't going to get the full benefit of the propaganda campaign), well, nothing lost anyway, and revenge is a dish best served cold.

And thirdly, there is absolutely no downside for Democrats. No one is blaming them. None of this will hurt any program that progressive Democrats truly care about. And the domestic spending programs that do get cut will also serve to advance the Democrat agenda as those too will be blamed on Republicans as sob story after sob story is trotted out in the media and the president tours the country showing off the children, single moms, and old folks that the Republicans have dumped on. Can’t make an omelet after all, without breaking eggs.

And so, once again, the hapless Republicans are to blame, while the Democrats come out of it smelling like a rose, and the military and DoD civilians are left to pick up the tab.