Bad Idea Whose Time Has Come–Again!

While reading Evan Soltsas’ discussion at WaPo’s Wonkblog of the pending “sequestration” of appropriations due to occur on March 1 if some agreement to kill or replace it doesn’t happen, I suddenly and vividly remembered where I first heard the term “sequestrations.” Yes, it was in 1985, when a gridlocked Congress enacted the Gramm-Rudman-Hollings Balanced Budget Act, which created the across-the-board appropriations cuts (called “sequestrations of spending”) that would occur at a date certain if certain levels of deficit reduction were not achieved. The legislation is credited with pushing Congress and Poppy Bush into the 1990 budget deal which conservatives recall with horror to this very day, but that made a balanced budget later in that decade possible.

One of the fathers of “sequestration,” Sen. Warren Rudman, called it “a bad idea whose time has come.” Almost everyone thought it idiotic, and a reflection of congressional dysfunction. But it was actually just one in a long line of self-consciously idiotic budgeting actions–more often called “freezes”–that reflected an inability and/or unwillingness to set budget priorities.

It is generally the exemptions from spending “freezes” that reflect true priorities. And so it was more significant than anyone seemed to realize at the time that the 2011 deal exempted from exposure to sequestration Medicaid and several other low-income programs along with the VA, while limiting the amount of cuts that could be levied in Medicare.

It is possible Republicans could become so panicked at the imminence of defense cuts that they will agree to largely delay or cancel the sequestrations. But it’s more likely they will simply fight to spread the pain more widely, perhaps by going after the exempt categories. All in all, letting the sequestrations go into effect and then finding ways to plus-up appropriations for non-exempt programs that should be priorities is probably the best scenario for progressives.

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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.