Beyond the Sequester Panic

It’s easy to get cynical about the alarums arising over the state-by-state estimates of sequester impact the White House has released into the hands of anxious and news-hungry local media outlets around the country. And I’m not among those who think the moans emanating from various trees struck by sequester lightning will necessarily convince congressional Republicans to back off and cooperate with Democrats in fixing selected appropriations levels when the continuing resolution runs out next month.

But there’s a long-term effect this rolling fiasco could produce that is worth keeping in mind. The central chimera of American politics at present is that a stable (if slim) majority of voters dislike government spending in the abstract, but resist reductions in almost every identifiable category of government spending one they become concrete. This is why so many Democrats talk tough on the budget deficit even as they contend that austerity policies hurt the economy and that domestic safety-net programs and discretionary investments are essential to the long-term strength of the country. And this is why Republicans are willing repeatedly to bring the country to a standstill to press their repeated demands that Democrats propose “entitlement reforms” even as Republicans pose as the heroes who will ensure there is never a provider claim on Medicare that’s not paid in full.

Idiotic as the sequester undoubtedly is, it will help narrow the gap between abstract and concrete public notions of government spending, and make GOP members of Congress uncomfortably accountable for very real consequences in their own states and districts. And it will also help explode the conservative myth that public-sector austerity is exactly what we need to restore economic growth.

This last point is worth pondering. Will public employee furloughs, curtailed airport operations, closed-down Head Start enrollments, increased school class sizes, and laid-off defense contract workers create cries of joy among “job-creators” who will begin to liberate their capital holdings now that they are assured they still live in the Land of the Free where government will not be allowed to “crowd out” their brilliantly innovative activities? I don’t think so. The only people who will be pleased by the sequester are ideologues who view the beneficiaries of public-sector programs as “takers,” and who actively enjoy their pain. That these people happen to form the conservative base of the GOP is not going to enhance their reputation one single bit.

Ed Kilgore

Ed Kilgore, a Monthly contributing editor, is a columnist for the Daily Intelligencer, New York magazine’s politics blog, and the managing editor for the Democratic Strategist.