The Sequester

by Yuval Levin

There’s a lot of talk on the Hill and in the political press today about how Congress might respond to the partial or total failure of the supercommittee. Many people on all sides of the aisle seem to think that, because the sequester created by the debt-ceiling deal does not take effect until January of 2013, Congress will leave it alone for most of next year and then after the election might take up the question of whether to undo the sequester to avoid the domestic and defense cuts that many Democrats and Republicans (respectively) want to avoid. A lot of Republicans are telling themselves not to worry about the defense cuts because they’ll be undone before they take effect, and some Democrats seem to think the same way about the domestic discretionary cuts.


I don’t think it’s going to work that way. At the very least, the decision about whether to allow the sequester to take effect (as, after all, Congress and the president agreed to do not so long ago and is now written into law) will not wait until a lame-duck session at the end of 2012. The President has to propose a 2013 budget in February of 2012. The House will presumably propose one in March or April. (The Senate will presumably not, since Senate Democrats haven’t drafted a budget in a couple of years and they see the debt-ceiling deal as exempting them from the requirement to do so for another couple of years.) That means that Obama and House Republicans will both have to decide how they want to approach the sequester question early in 2012. Do they assume the sequester takes effect or do they propose alternative cuts (in the case of House Republicans) or tax increases (for Obama) in its place, along with their other budget proposals?


For House Republicans in particular, a decision to undo the sequester and replace it with something else will not be simple as a matter of politics, and it does not seem like the leadership has tried to persuade members that averting the defense cuts in the debt-ceiling agreement is an important enough priority to make it worth the complicated politics. Some members certainly think so already, but do enough of them?


This isn’t a simple problem for the president either, because he has issued a veto threat against any effort by the supercommittee to undo the sequester. Will he now turn around and propose to undo it himself? (For what it’s worth, I think he will.)  


Whatever they propose in their budgets, actually getting a substitute enacted will be very difficult, even if they wait until a lame duck session (when an awful lot will be on the table). Things could still change after that—if the next president values defense spending more highly, he could work out changes to the sequester with the next congress at any time. Or maybe all involved will judge it best to let the cuts take effect as planned. However it goes, it’s not going to be something the two parties can hold off until after the election. They will need to make their priorities and proposals clear well before that, and these basic fiscal questions are going to be front and center throughout the election year.

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