In return for raising the debt ceiling in 2011, congressional Republicans demanded spending cuts. President Obama insisted that the spending cuts be across-the-board reductions weighted toward defense. Now those reductions in planned spending are finally happening.
It would have been much better to reduce the size of government in a considered and intelligent way. Entitlement programs — the portion of the budget most in need of reining in — are left untouched. The president, however, refused to consider more sensible spending cuts unless the Republicans agreed to another tax increase just months after one had taken effect. Managers of government agencies could have been given discretion over which portions of their spending would be trimmed over the next few months, as an interim measure until Congress draws up a new budget. President Obama and congressional Democrats resisted any such measure in order to keep up the pressure for tax increases.
Those managers could have prepared for sequestration by gradually reducing spending over the last few months. The administration twice ordered them not to plan ahead in this fashion, perhaps on the theory that Republicans would buckle and allow higher spending. Because of all of these decisions, the spending reductions, while mild as a percentage of the budget, will have an outsized impact on national defense.
Republicans have at times been unsure of what to say about sequestration, with some of them emphasizing that Obama is to blame for it and others saying it is a good thing. For now, though, the Republicans seem to have prevailed: Spending will not be raised above its post-sequestration levels — President Obama has conceded the point with respect to the continuing resolution to fund the government through September — and taxes will go no higher as well. The president could regain the initiative during the debate over the resolution, but only if Republicans are foolish enough to give him the opportunity to blame them for a government shutdown.
Conservatives were right to resist increases in taxes and spending. They must not lose sight of the more important objective: reforming the welfare state to make it a better fit with the country’s needs and the Constitution’s design. Sequestration does not seriously advance this objective, and Democratic control of the White House and Senate places tight limits on how much progress can be made toward it.
What conservatives should do now is offer modest first steps on entitlement reform. A well-designed reduction in benefits for the highest earners could make a real dent in the debt projections, cause no hardship, and establish the precedent for bolder reforms in the future. If the administration balks, Republicans will have exposed its obduracy at no cost to themselves.