A rubber band is a continuous elastic cord designed to hold things together. If stretched too far, it either breaks or slips in a stinging snapback. In either case, the bundle falls apart. Congress and the White House have been playing rubber-band politics with budget issues for the past two years, hoping to hold things together with new gimmicks that only cause further stretching of the band.
The sequester triggered on March 1 is a stretch too far — things snapped. Congress is being stung, the president is stung, and government agencies are beginning to feel the sting. Meantime, the American people are snapping over what they see as juvenile games — a spit-wad squad of teenage boys, armed with rubber bands, firing spitballs at each other.
The partisan blame game over who originated this sequester only adds to the childish spectacle. Journalist Bob Woodward recently revealed that then-Office of Management and Budget Director Jacob J. Lew and then-legislative affairs chief Rob Nabors conceived this sequester fix to seal the 2011 debt limit deal. Lew, while an aide to Speaker Thomas P. O’Neill Jr., was present at the creation of sequestration in a 1985 bipartisan debt limit deal known as the Balanced Budget and Emergency Deficit Control Act (aka Gramm-Rudman-Hollings). It involved a glide path to a balanced budget using deficit targets. The deficit targets were replaced in 1990 by discretionary spending caps, still enforceable by the threat of sequester.
The point is, Congress has been living with sequestration in one form or another for more than a quarter century. It is irrelevant who originally proposed the latest incarnation. Both parties voted for it with the understanding that across-the-board cuts were so onerous and stupid they would drive both sides to the table to fashion a smart alternative.
Now, both sides are trying to deny paternity. Consider the specter being conjured by the administration. The effects of the sequester will rival the plagues visited on biblical Egypt: Terrorists will reign, criminals will walk, forests and cities will burn, diseases will spread, and the military will atrophy.
Those were the themes of the president’s campaign-style, Barack-O-horror road show last week to drum up public outrage against those “meat cleaver”-wielding Republicans who are out to “gut” the government. The media echo chamber amplified administration officials’ Chicken Little, sky-is-falling scenario. And yet, here it is, day six of the apocalypse, and the sun still arcs through a high blue sky. The only thing that has fallen is the administration’s credibility.
This is not to derogate the seriousness of the sequester but rather to suggest that the panicky prognostications of Armageddon befog the real damage that mindless cuts will cause over the long haul. And yet, neither the president nor Congress has demonstrated a commitment to working together on a long-term deficit reduction package — notwithstanding the belated and perfunctory White House meeting with congressional leaders March 1.
Speaker John A. Boehner had goaded the Senate to act first on grounds that the House passed two sequester alternatives last year. But those bills died when the 112th Congress sine died, and the GOP has not resurrected them for fear they wouldn’t pass this time. On Feb. 28, the Senate accepted Boehner’s challenge to act first but couldn’t muster the 60 votes needed to consider the two parties’ dueling sequester alternatives. Senators subsequently skipped town to the sound of rubber bands snapping.
In Federalist No. 62, James Madison expressed the belief that good government implies “fidelity to the object of government, which is the happiness of the people” and “a knowledge of the means by which that object can be best attained.” He concluded the essay by observing that a political system that exhibits “marks of infirmity” and betrays the people’s “flattering hopes” will not long be respected “without being truly respectable; nor be truly respectable without possessing … order and stability.”
The current disorder and instability of a government careening from one man-made crisis to the next is contributing directly to the people’s unhappiness and disrespect for government. Congress and the president must find the knowledge, wisdom and means to change that.
Don Wolfensberger is a resident scholar at the Bipartisan Policy Center, a senior scholar at the Woodrow Wilson Center and former staff director of the House Rules Committee.