The sequester will go into extra innings on Friday — here’s why

Unless I’m seriously mistaken and misreading the lack of disturbance in the Force — the DC jungle tom-toms are remarkably silent — sequester negotiations are headed for extra innings, and the sequester, due to arrive on March 1, will arrive on schedule. Yves Smith thinks the two sides are waiting each other out (my emphasis everywhere):

The game of chicken both the Republicans and Democrats are playing with the sequester and the budget/deficit talks is striking. One of the truly bizarre elements is that neither side is signaling the faintest interest in dealmaking of any kind. As I indicated the week before last, the lack of any sense of urgency was obvious: Congress had a holiday last week, and there were no real negotiations or even an exchange of proposals, virtually guaranteeing the sequester would take place as scheduled.

And you could feel the indifference even before then: no rush to get to work right after either the inaugural partying or the State of the Union. By contrast, recall last November how we went with nary a beat from the election results to deficit scaremongering and frenzied “what a deal should look like” chatter?

A piece in the Wall Street Journal on Saturday gave a good overview of the state of play. The game plan is now that the sequester will be allowed to kick in and will stay in place until one side cries “Uncle,” when the impact on the economy is hurting one side badly enough in the polls to force it to relent.

Yves thinks there is “more here than meets the eye” and I think she’s right (see below). Click to read more of her thinking.

So what’s going on?

Digby offers a clue. Quoting Brian Beutler at TPM:

So sequestration will begin. Obama won’t cave [because he'll never face another election, according to Beutler]. And then the tension sequestration was intended to create — and in fact has created — between defense hawks and the rest of the GOP will intensify and actually splinter the party. If that doesn’t happen quickly enough, then the sequestration fight will become tangled up in the need to renew funding for the federal government at the end of March. If Republicans don’t cave before then, they’ll precipitate a 1995-style government shutdown, public opinion will actually begin to control the outcome, and it’ll be game over.

So there are real dynamics at work here that can break the GOP’s resolve in this fight but that can’t easily be turned against Obama.

Digby adds:

… I certainly agree that the whole point is to divide the Republicans between the defense hawks and the debt fetishists. You can see the tension in the Senate already with Graham and McCain calling for revenue to avoid defense cuts. That’s where the action’s going to be. But I would also point out that the Democratic party has a share of defense hawks who can be counted upon to exert pressure for some kind of a deal as well.

This could very well be correct. However …

Is this a left vs. right fight, or a “center” vs. the edges fight?

All of the above positions the battle as Obama and the Dems vs. Boehner and the Republicans. Will the military cuts make the Republicans crack first? Will the social program cuts make the Democrats give in? But there’s another way to see this.

Let’s start from the principle that leaders of both parties, Obama included, want to cut benefits for Social Security and Medicare. If the “centrist” deal is “Let’s each kill one of our own,” meaning Republicans leaders will agree to raise taxes and Democratic leaders will start cutting benefits, then the problem, as always, is at the recalcitrant edges.

The recalcitrant edge of the Republicans includes Tea Party–financed electeds. The recaltricant Dems are the progressives, especially those in the Congressional Progressive Caucus (CPC) and their cousins in the Senate.

Can the Republicans get the Tea Party–financed to go along with raising taxes? Can the Neoliberal Democrats — that’s you, Barack Obama — get the progressives in Congress to vote for benefit cuts?

That’s been the battle every time, and I’m convinced it’s the battle now. Obama can’t cut benefits without “bipartisan” fingers on the knife. Unless it’s a “bipartisan deal,” Dems will be the perp, and House and Senate Dems — those who do face future elections — won’t allow that. So Obama has to bribe his own party with the illusion of a “bipartisan” decision, just to get them to consider it.

Why “illusion”? Because as soon as a “bipartisan” benefit cuts deal is signed into law, the Republicans will hang it around the neck of every Democrat who voted for it anyway. It’s the way they work. Democrats who don’t see this are star-gazing, dream-catching, looking for fish in a waterless world.

We know that cutting benefits is the Republicans’ goal in sequester negotiations. Is it Obama’s? Bill Black, from the Yves Smith article quoted above, tells us that the only reason we have the sequester at all is because Obama wanted it. Note this:

We are in the midst of the blame game about the “Sequester.” I wrote last year about the fact that President Obama had twice blocked Republican efforts to remove the Sequester. President Obama went so far as to issue a veto threat to block the second effort. I found contemporaneous reportage on the President’s efforts to preserve the Sequester – and the articles were not critical of those efforts. I found no contemporaneous rebuttal by the administration of these reports.

And again, benefit cuts are “very much” on the table.

So Obama wants the sequester to force another Grand Bargain — or Grand Betrayal, as Black says later in the piece. Boehner wants the sequester to force Obama to offer benefit cuts without revenue increases, which Obama can’t offer. Stalemate, and a sequester we will have, until both sides’ leaders get agreement within their parties, or until they give up, cancel the sequester, and move on to the next phony crisis opportunity (the debt ceiling).

The real blackmailee, of course, is the country. Both sides’ leaders want the sequester to be scary to everyone in the country — OMG, the troops; OMG, air travel; OMG, Head Start gets it in the neck — so that pressure builds on their edge politicians to cave.

In other words, they’re not really blackmailing each other, these Obamas and Boehners. They’re acting together to blackmail the country to want a deal so badly, that both the Tea Party R’s and the progressive D’s will each cave to their leaders and agree to what the leaders of both parties want — ultimately, benefit cuts, with a thin layer of tax hikes and a bunch of confusing budget numbers for frosting.

Anyone in the press who says, “OMG, sequester!” is part of the blackmail, knowingly or not. Anyone.

What’s the way out?

What’s the answer to every blackmail situation, especially one in which there’s no kidnapped victim? Don’t pay. So here’s how to play it:

1. Phone every Republican made vulnerable by the sequester — see the end of this post by Howie Klein for the list — and say:

“Are you a man (woman) or a mouse? Where’s that Tea Party no-tax goodness you promised when you ran? And by the way, you’re dead to me if you vote for cuts to my Medicare or retirement money. See you in 2014.”

House phone numbers here. Howie has compiled a long list. Feel free to improvise your own riff on the theme. Just make it credible — you’re an angry man with a mullet, or a woman who hearts Sarah Palin, or vice versa.

2. Now phone every Democrat who said they “strongly oppose” benefit cuts — but didn’t say they would vote against them (there’s a good starter list here, with phone numbers). Tell them:

“Dude (dudette): This vote is a land mine. Don’t step on it. ‘Nuff said? 2014 is just around the corner, and this stuff is toxic. Just helping out, making sure you know that.”

None of these people wants to lose their job, and many won’t take much convincing. Among the Republicans, you’re playing into fear — they get it; their people are old and want “gummint hands of our Medicare.” That fear is part of why we don’t have a deal on the table right now.

And among the Democrats, there are many who really do oppose benefit cuts. We just have to let them know we’re watching — and be sure to tell them there’s a Thank You waiting if they do the right thing.

No Cuts period, that’s the right thing — no matter what else the bill contains. I say this because Obama, he’s a tricky man; he’ll put kittens and veterans benefits inside the bill and dare the CPC to vote against it. Just say No, CPC. With your vote.

And fans, don’t forget to phone the Republicans as well. Many of them are as scared as you are, and a whole lot more venal.

GP

To follow or send links: @Gaius_Publius


Gaius Publius is a professional writer living on the West Coast of the United States. Click here for more. Follow him on Twitter @Gaius_Publius and Facebook.

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  • hollywoodstein

    Note to self: Always read the whole post before replying.

  • hollywoodstein

    Wait!
    NO ALCOHOL!

  • hollywoodstein

    I like tuna fish sammiches and warm soda.

  • hollywoodstein

    Remember the drama is there to force the Republicans to give him some cover to cut the safety net.

  • hollywoodstein

    I’m less concerned about the sequester than the logic behind it and what Obama is willing and wanting to give away and get what in return in order to end it.

  • hollywoodstein

    Nope. If he had his way chained cpi, and raised eligibility and who knows what else would have been swapped already for some magic beans.

  • perljammer

    OK, let’s run with that, using the $85 billion number. The Federal government spent about $10 billion a day in 2011. So if you postponed the sequester until the last possible moment AND government agencies did absolutely nothing in preparation, the government would have to shut down spending for nearly a week and a half.

    Some years ago, when the Dead Sea was merely Sick, I worked for a Silicon Valley startup that ran into a short-term cash flow problem that made it necessary to cut everyone’s pay by 10% for 6 months. That was pretty uncomfortable, but it wasn’t the end of the world. If instead of cutting each paycheck by 10% they had told us that in 6 months, one paycheck would be cut by 60%, I would have had two choices: (1) ignore the problem for now, and in 6 months be unable to buy groceries or pay the rent; or (2) put 10% aside each month and be uncomfortable but sustainable. This is the choice facing Federal agencies.

  • condew

    I sure don’t want my retirement income determined by rich men working away from the light of day. None of them need it, so zero is as good as any other number; and if they are not accountable to their voters and can each pretend they were the lone holdout, zero it will be.

  • condew

    For every month that goes by, the percentage cut for the remainder of the fiscal year gets bigger. Say you have to save 85 billion in a year, that’s 7 billion a month. Now say negotiations drag on and you have to save 85 billion in 3 months, that’s 21 billion a month. Eventually you get the point where you have to shut everything down for the rest of the year, and then to where it can’t be done.

  • nicho

    They’re good at blowing all kinds of smoke.

  • http://twitter.com/BillFromDover Bill from Dover

    White or black smoke?

  • http://twitter.com/BillFromDover Bill from Dover

    Manufactured?

    Hows about the impending Stop The Minorities From Voting Decision?

  • perljammer

    Before sequestration was postponed at the end of last year, it was called “The Fiscal Cliff”. The general consensus on this blog seemed to be, “It’s not a cliff; it’s a mole hill. If it happens, the cuts won’t cause any real pain for a long time.”

    So, people, what caused the big shift in attitude? I’d like to know what turned “What, me worry?” into “The sky is falling!”

  • ProNewerDeal

    great work Gaius on tracking the Obama/Boner GrandRipoff details.

    I wonder if we would have an improved chance of avoiding ALL Social Insurance cuts, IF the Green Party was running a candidate in EVERY HouseRep & Senate 2014 Office. Then, we could have better leverage when calling the Dem House/Senate pols (including the CPC Dems) that have NOT yet signed that Grayson letter promising to vote NO on any bill with Social Insurance cuts.

    When calling said Dem pol offices, we could say “this is a deal-breaker issue for me. You MUST sign the Grayson letter & vote NO on any bill with Social Insurance cuts, or I will support/vote for a pro-Social Insurance 2014 Dem primary challenger, & should you survive the primary, I will vote for the 2014 GREEN party candidate! Like I said, this is a deal-breaker issue for me, & I will vote this way regardless of any other good votes/work you may do on other issues”

    what do you think Gaius?

  • nicho

    It only take the corporatist media about three weeks to gin up a war. We could be invading Switzerland by Easter — with broad nationwide support — if they put their minds to it.

  • Ford Prefect

    Tis a good point. But it would also undermine the blame game, which both parties need to keep their ignorant bases on the reservation. Besides, they love their kabuki, don’t you know.

  • Ford Prefect

    At this point, I think they need a new war to justify the war budget. The WH is looking seriously at Syria now and Damascus is the last stop on the road to Tehran.

    The fiscal crap can be repackaged every six months ad infinitum. The problem is, it gets boring. So they’ll need an “exogenous” crisis at some point. $300 oil might do the trick.

  • nicho

    Actually, I think that we will get a worse decision when the politicians spend their time playing to the cameras. We may get a better decision if they can’t posture to establish their Teabagger creds.

  • Ford Prefect

    I suggest the CPC rename themselves the Congressional Poseur Caucus. A little truth in advertising would be a nice thing at this point.

  • http://www.rebeccamorn.com/mind BeccaM

    If I had to guess? It’ll be the debt ceiling mainly, but they have to jack it up to try to get people to care, so they’ll deliberately add in some fiscal cliffiness along with some degree of sequestration and call it something stupid like “the fiscal triple whammy.”

  • http://www.rebeccamorn.com/mind BeccaM

    Me neither.

  • http://www.rebeccamorn.com/mind BeccaM

    That’s the truly unfortunate part.

    The Dem “progressive” (sic) caucus always (ALWAYS) settles down and votes exactly how the DNC tells them to vote — which is always a center-right compromise. The GOP’s newly minted Tea Bagger caucus will gleefully burn down the country if they don’t get everything they want and are equally happy to vote against bills their own leadership is begging them to support.

    Guess which caucus gets most of what it wants and which gets none?

  • Ford Prefect

    If all that matters is “a decision, any decision,” you’re undoubtedly correct. The problem is, I think we all know what kind of decision would come out of a secret meeting.

  • nicho

    Maybe we should follow the Vatican’s lead. Instead of doing this in open legislative session — lock all the participating parties in the Capitol — under absolute secrecy — until they come to a solution. Without the TV cameras to perform for, living on tuna fish sandwiches and warm soda, and cut off from their mistresses and boy toys — and all alcohol — they might come to a rather speedy decision.

  • nicho

    The thing is that we’re not Greece. In many ways, but the biggest one is that we have a sovereign currency, and Greece does not. We can print money to meet our obligations. Greece can’t. That was the rationale behind the creation of the euro — to take monetary policy out of the hands of politicians in individual countries. The reasoning was that when their was a crisis, their lack of ability to enact monetary policy would force them to destroy the middle class.

  • Mike_in_the_Tundra

    I can’t wait.

  • Ford Prefect

    The recaltricant Dems are the progressives, especially those in the Congressional Progressive Caucus (CPC) and their cousins in the Senate.

    Um, sorry, but no. 54 out of 70 “Progressives” won’t even sign a pathetic letter against cuts to SS, Medicare, etc. So no, there is no real opposition to austerity in the sarcastically named Congressional Progressive Caucus. People who won’t even sign a friggin’ letter certainly will not fight over this.

    http://www.commondreams.org/view/2013/02/27-0

    So actually, your characterization over labeling (left v. right? or center v. fringe?) is really about the 90% of congress who wishes to harm us, versus the other 10% that don’t, but aren’t so put out they feel like starting a fight over it.

  • Indigo

    That would be the complete collapse of the Greek economy and the EU panic that follows.

  • nicho

    I don’t trust Obama.

  • nicho

    Not scary enough. People like dancing. It has to either have a sense of impending doom — fiscal cliff — or buzz-word obfuscation — sequestration.

  • caphillprof

    I don’t trust Obama with Social Security or Medicare.

    However, Obama has no choice in this current situation but to wait out the Republicans.

    Before his re-election, the paradigm was that Obama would offer a compromise and the House would move the goal post further right, dragging him (perhaps not reluctantly) toward more center right positions.

    If the government cannot tax then the government cannot govern. The House refuses to tax. The only way to govern is to force the House to tax. And the only way to force the House to tax is to wait them out.

    The government also must decide how to spend money and how not to spend money. The House also refuses to do that. Sure the Tea Party says they want to cut spending but they won’t come out and own their spending cuts. What they want to do is repeal Social Security and Medicare and STEAL all the money that Americans have paid into those programs. But they want the Democrats to do it for them. The Democrats will not do it for them, not even Obama.

    This is a standoff between some people who are almost adults and another group of people stuck in a Kindergarten.

  • GaiusPublius

    Debt Ceiling tango. It’s a line dance with all the ratings agencies involved.

    GP

  • nicho

    I have only one question. Have they thought up the name for the next manufactured crisis yet? I want to get a head start on worrying about it.

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