Hypocrisy and Sequestration

The Hotline’s Reid Wilson says:

Every member of Congress who complains about sequestration should be required to admit whether voted for it in the same breath.

I strongly disagree with the implication here, which is that it’s hypocritical to have voted “for” sequestration but then be against it.

Remember how we got here. House Republicans (and, I suppose, Senate Republicans too, although they as a group weren’t really driving the process) demanded huge spending cuts as a condition for raising the debt limit. Democrats refused. The result was a stalemate, which threatened to produce a government default.

Democrats and Republicans agreed to negotiate for a “grand bargain” deficit reduction package. There’s quite a bit of dispute about why that grand bargain was not reached. Democrats believe that Republicans really had no intention of reaching any deal that involved any compromise at all; Republicans believe that Democrats weren’t really willing to cut spending in any kind of serious way. Note that the key thing there was that both sides claimed to want a large deficit reduction package but didn’t believe the other side was sincere (the Democrats, or at least the White House and many leading Congressional Democrats, claim to want long-term deficit reduction and have advanced plans to achieve that, but didn’t want to tie it to the debt limit).

At any rate, the grand bargain talks failed: more stalemate, and a more urgent threat of a real calamity.

The solution that both sides could live with involved some immediate cuts, and a process for continuing the grand bargain negotiations: first through the “supercommittee” process, and then if that didn’t work through the normal legislative process but with a sequester programmed in at an agreed-to deadline. The sequester was intended, then, not to be implemented, but to force other action. It was deliberately designed to consist of things that everyone found unacceptable: domestic spending cuts that Democrats didn’t want; defense cuts that Republicans didn’t want; and an across-the-board process that would produce lots of cuts that no one wanted.

So: the threat of the sequester was intended to force a compromise that both sides claimed to want (and, in the meantime, to avoid the GOP-threatened default) by inventing something worse that no one wanted.

And therefore I don’t think there’s any hypocrisy at all in a Member having voted “for” the sequester — that is, for a process to end the debt limit threat and to work for a grand bargain — without actually supporting the sequester. No one wanted the sequester if it was properly designed; that was the point.

Basically, I don’t see any hypocrisy or dishonesty at all in anyone who voted for the Budget Control Act last summer but who currently supports deficit reduction while opposing the sequester. That’s an entirely consistent position.

Moreover, given the specific choices available at the time, I’d say that a vote for the Budget Control Act was probably the best choice even for someone who didn’t want large-scale deficit reduction at all. If the choice was large deficit cutting then or a procedure to induce large deficit-cutting in eighteen months, then kicking the can down the road was a reasonable choice. And of course it ended the threat of default then, although that too was just kicked down the road. Sometimes, that’s the best choice. It doesn’t require endorsing the sequester.

No, voting for the Budget Control Act in 2011 while now objecting to the sequester isn’t at all inconsistent.

Now, what is inconsistent is to claim, as some Republicans are, that the sequester is some sort of Barack Obama plot to sink the economy. Or to claim that immediate deficit reduction through spending cuts is absolutely necessary to save the economy but that defense spending cuts will sink the economy. Or, in my view at least, insist both that budget must be balanced but also that taxes should be slashed and that cuts to most spending would be calamities.

But there’s nothing at all wrong in simply having voted for the sequester and now opposing implementing it. That was the whole idea from the beginning.

[Cross-posted at A plain blog about politics]

Jonathan Bernstein

Jonathan Bernstein is a political scientist who writes about American politics, especially the presidency, Congress, parties, and elections.