Ben Boyce


The sequester debacle: the new normal?

Posted on March 7, 2013 by Ben Boyce

We are in new territory in American political history.  The old-school model held that under conditions of divided government, both parties would work out a compromise by “meeting in the middle” to craft a solution that would be acceptable to the majority of both parties, even if neither regarded it as ideal.  That model has been broken by the sustained intransigence of the Tea Party-dominated Republican Party in refusing to accept any outcome other than the maximalist demands of their faction.  The normal order of Congressional legislation has been supplanted by a series of manufactured crises using critical choke-points in the budgetary process.

We can now predict the next gut-wrenching and economically destructive crisis by the budget calendar.  We have lurched from the threatened government shutdown and the debt ceiling showdown in the last Congress, to the fiscal cliff fiasco at the beginning of the year, and the current sequester debacle.  Upcoming attractions (mark your calendars!):  the continuing resolution to fund the government at the end of March, and, just as we are getting ready for vacation, another debt ceiling showdown this summer.  The fun never stops.

It was not always like this.  America used to be a governable country, with vigorous political battles that would ultimately be resolved through elections, resulting in legislative deals that reflected the electoral balance of power. Elections should have consequences in a healthy democracy.  What all these fake crises have in common is the unprecedented strategy of attempting to accomplish through political hostage-taking tactics what they cannot achieve at the ballot box.

The basic calculation seems to be that, if they cannot govern, no one can govern.  The Senate Republican minority caucus has brought the institution to a grinding halt through an unprecedented abuse of the filibuster, while the House Republicans claim the mandate to block every attempt to enact the President’s agenda based on their gerrymandered control of a body in which they actually received a million votes fewer than the Democratic caucus in the 2012 election. The raft of second generation (‘Jim Crow Jr.’) voter suppression laws in red states and the RNC campaign to rig the electoral college to capture the presidency without a popular mandate demonstrate that the conservative movement has come to the unspoken conclusion that they will have to employ extra-legal and unconstitutional means to hold on to power in the face of the changing demographics of America.  That is not what democracy looks like.

The U.S. is steadily losing international credibility, as our allies watch in dismay as our dysfunctional political system threatens to de-stabilize the global economy.  You can imagine the amusement of the Chinese when we try to lecture them on the superiority of “democracy,” while our political scene degenerates into a farce that really isn’t that funny anymore.  These are the characteristics of a society in decline.  The U.S. is descending into banana republic status, as a determined crew of wreckers deliberately blows holes in the ship of state in order to impose their will by force.

We should not let this become the “new normal.”  We must demand political responsibility from all parties and a cessation of these dangerous and polarizing tactics. What should concern us all is an escalation of this ruinous strategy, now that we have finally crossed the Rubicon by passing the sequester deadline.  There was no 11th hour fix, as we had seen in previous crises.  What used to be unthinkable, like defaulting on the national debt service, now seems like a more credible threat.

We are watching the Tea Party Republicans steadily define political deviance downwards. The sequester is a slow-moving train wreck which will take up to a year to hit, unlike the debt ceiling default, which would have sent the world economy into an immediate, massive heart attack.  Even so, the nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office estimates that the sequester will cost around 750,000 jobs in 2013, and shave off about 1.5% growth, in an economy that is growing at an anemic 2% a year.  These are real world consequences.

“I don’t see how ‘I’m fine with the sequester’ differs from ‘I’m fine with slower growth and continued high unemployment’ and so on,” said Jared Bernstein, a senior fellow at the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities.  Here in Sonoma County we will see the effects in the form of reduced enrollments in Head Start, and decrease in federal matching funds for critical transportation projects like the Highway 12 upgrade.

It is becoming increasingly clear that the only way out of this dead end is a seismic political realignment in the 2014 midterm elections. As long as the Tea Party Republicans still have even one lever of power left in the House, these scorched-earth tactics will continue. Absent a massive and decisive electoral repudiation, the necessary internal re-examination within the deeply divided Republican Party will not occur.  The country-club Republicans need our help to take their party back.  A healthy democracy will always have a creative tension between conservative and progressive forces, which serves to maintain necessary checks and balances. Democracy requires both parties act in good faith, for the good of the nation.