So the sequester is supposed to kick in this Friday, March 1 - or, more accurately, the budget sequestration provision of the Budget Control Act of 2011. I had forgotten most of what I ever knew about how this came to be but Wikipedia explains that:
In 2011, sequestration was used in the Budget Control Act of 2011(BCA, P.L. 112-25) as a tool in federal budget control. This 2011 act authorized an increase in the debt ceiling in exchange for $2.4 trillion in deficit reduction over the following ten years. This total included $1.2 trillion in spending cuts identified specifically in the legislation, with an additional $1.2 trillion in cuts that were to be determined by a bipartisan group of Senators and Representatives known as the "Super Committee" or officially as the United States Joint Select Committee on Deficit Reduction. The Super Committee failed to reach an agreement. In that event, a trigger mechanism in the bill was activated to implement across-the-board reductions in the rate of increase in spending known as "sequestration".
The sequestration was supposed to kick in on January 1, 2013, but “the American Taxpayer Relief Act of 2012 delayed in until March 1 of that year.”
Ah, yes. Debt ceilings, sequestration, Super Committees, fiscal cliffs, all that. And once we get past March 1, it looks like we’ll need another Continuing Resolution by March 27. Then there’s another fight over the debt ceiling coming up in May. Another fiscal cliff. Another chance for the parties to squabble, another chance for the economy to tank, another chance to have our credit rating downgraded, another chance for everyone outside of government to pay still less attention to still another crisis that never quite happens.
I'm pretty much sick of all this. So here’s what I’d like the Congressional Republicans to do, assuming they can act together.
Call a press conference.
Talk about the lousy shape the economy is in. Talk about the unemployment rate and the number of people who have stopped looking for work. Talk a lot about the morality of leaving future generations with crushing debt so we can have what we want now.
Say that the best choice for the country is the Path to Prosperity. State that the House is prepared to pass a budget based on this proposal immediately if the Senate Democrats will agree to pass it unchanged and President Obama will agree not to veto it.
Say that if the Senate Democrats and President Obama will not so agree, then the second best choice for the country is Bowles-Simpson. Acknowledge its flaws but point out that it is better than what we have now. State that the House is prepared to pass a budget based on this plan immediately if the Senate Democrats will agree to pass it unchanged and President Obama will agree not to veto it.
Say that what is bad for the country are the policies the President and the Congressional Democrats want. Explain what they are and why they are bad. If the Congressional Republicans cannot explain what these policies are and why they are bad, they should find another line of work.
Then say that nonetheless there is something that is worse for the country than the policies of the President and the Congressional Democrats: our current situation. The unending crises, the constant fiscal cliffs, the partisan bickering, the name-calling, the accusing, the lack on a budget, the constant kicking the can down the road through Continuing Resolutions and suspensions of the debt ceiling - none of that is good for anyone. Therefore, if the President and the Senate Democrats will not agree to either the Path to Prosperity or Bowles-Simpson, the Republicans are prepared to do the following:
1) Raise the debt ceiling to $21.5 Trillion.* Explain that this will be the last debt ceiling raise ever approved by a Republican-controlled house of Congress and that no future suspension of the debt ceiling will be considered.
2) Pass whatever budget President Obama and the Senate Democrats propose. Explain that Republicans will vote for a continuing resolution to get the country to the end of June and give President Obama and the Congressional Democrats a chance to put together a budget bill. That will be the last Continuing Resolution ever approved by a Republican-controlled house of Congress.
End the press conference.
The Republicans should do all this while avoiding partisan sniping, sarcasm, loaded language, and pettiness like the plague. It would be nice for at least one side to discuss the issues rather than the people involved, the supposed motives of the other side, the history of the failures, and whose fault it all is. And if high-mindedness isn’t enough reason to take this tack, the fact that bad-mouthing President Obama doesn’t work should be.
Doesn’t advocating this make me a nihilist, rooting for disaster to prove my point - or at least to gain political advantage in the long run? No.
I believe we’ll end up with a debt ceiling of $21.5 Trillion before Obama leaves office anyhow so that’s not a giveaway. As for passing the Obama/Democrat budget, there are three possibilities. One is that this approach works and the country recovers economically: unemployment drops like a rock; housing sales pick up; young people buried in student loans find good jobs; small businesses spring up like grass in a meadow and flourish like poplars by a flowing stream; the infrastructure is healed; consumer confidence skyrockets; a new sense of purpose and energy spreads across the country - and 90% of those polled now call themselves Democrats. Bad for conservatives but good for the country so I couldn’t really complain.
The second possibility is that the economy will remain in the doldrums. I believe this is the best we can hope for if we keep doing what we’re doing now so this outcome would be a wash.
The third possibility, of course, is that things get much worse. This is worrisome but I think there’s a good chance that’s going to happen soon anyhow if we keep “solving” our economic problems the way we have been - and I’m absolutely certain that’s going to happen eventually if we continue the way we are and that “eventually” isn’t much later than “soon”. I also think there’s a limit to how much damage President Obama and the Congressional Democrats can do in four years - and to how much damage they will risk doing given that all but one of them will be up for re-election shortly. It’s easy for them to talk Big Left when they know their policies won’t be implemented; knowing they are going to have to live with the consequences should induce a certain amount of realism and caution into their approach.
I truly believe that continuing down the road we’re on is the worst possible path. Taxes are going up already; meaningful, intelligent spending cuts don’t seem on the table; wandering from one crisis to another is practically the definition of a climate of uncertainty; and no one on either side is accountable for anything.
So I’d like to see the Republicans ask President Obama and the Congressional Democrats to do the conservative thing and then, if they refuse, gracefully step aside. Doing so will require President Obama and the Democrats to actually sit down and put something detailed on the table and I hope that once budgeting stops being primarily an exercise in slash-and-burn partisan politics, the Democrats will come up with something less destructive. And even if they don’t, why keep putting the economy through these fiscal cliff upheavals if we’re going to end up raising the debt ceiling and doing nothing to fix our actual economic problems anyhow?
$21.5 Trillion is an incredibly big number. However:
When Obama entered office, the debt ceiling was $11.315 Trillion. It is now $16.394 Trillion - an increase of $5.079 Trillion in Obama’s first term. If we increase the debt ceiling by the same amount in Obama’s second term, we will end up with a debt ceiling of $21.473 Trillion. Round it up a little and we get $21.5 Trillion.
To look at it another way:
When George W. Bush entered office, the debt ceiling was $5.95 Trillion. When he left office it was $11.315 Trillion. That’s an absolute increase of “only” $5.365 Trillion but a percentage increase of 90%.
If we increase the debt ceiling during Obama’s two terms by 90%, we will end up with a debt ceiling of $21.4985 Trillion. Round it up a little and we again get $21.5 Trillion.
So $21.5 Trillion it is.