We are just days away from a cataclysm of biblical proportions. The cuts foretold in the Budget Control Act of 2011 are young as far as prophecies go, but apparently they are every bit as terrifying as rivers of blood and plagues of locusts. Any day now we can expect White House spokesman Jay Carney to take to the podium and read a prepared statement: “And when he opened the seventh seal, there was a small decrease in the rate of increase in federal spending.”
The great game in Washington is who will get the blame for something both House Speaker John Boehner and President Obama agree will be calamitous for the country. It is an argument so idiotic, it could pass for seriousness only in Washington. The Republicans correctly note that the president proposed the sequester. In fact, back when the president believed that Republicans were more terrified of these automatic budget cuts than Democrats were, he pretended that he would veto any attempts to get rid of them that didn’t give him even more of the tax hikes he holds so dear. Now that Republicans have already agreed to a tax hike, they’ll be damned if they’ll raise them even more.
Fair enough. But the GOP agreed to the idea. This wasn’t some elaborate con in which John Boehner wakes up thinking March 1 is a morning like any other, only to discover that $85 billion is missing.
The GOP will probably lose the public-relations battle over the sequester, because that’s the Republicans’ job in the age of Obama. A U.S. ambassador is murdered in a terrorist attack the administration ineptly responded to — and blamed on a video — but the only real story is that Republicans are so crazy, they want to know what happened. The president nominates a middle-brow pol to run the Defense Department, one who must recant all of his well-known views in order to get the job, and the story is how irrational the GOP is for caring. If the White House dispatched a drone to circle Boehner’s home, the front-page story in the New York Times would be on the speaker’s troubling paranoia.
But that doesn’t mean Republicans should make the White House’s job easier. Which is why it’s good news that the House leadership is reportedly working on legislation that would force Obama to choose where the $85 billion in cuts should come from. Both the president and Boehner agree that the across-the-board cuts required by the sequester make no sense, given that most agencies can find less painful ways to trim a few pennies out of every dollar.
It’s unlikely that Obama will take such a deal, since he and the Democratic-controlled Senate twice rejected legislation that replaced sequester cuts with more reasonable ones. Obama wants more tax hikes and thinks he can convince the country to accept them if the choice is between what he calls reasonable revenue increases and catastrophic cuts that will let people die in the streets, leave children to go hungry and illiterate, and allow poisoned food to sit rancid on supermarket shelves.
And he’s not crazy for it. This strategy has worked time and time again. If an agency has a billion-dollar budget and someone proposes cutting a dollar from its scheduled increase in funding, that dollar will be the one earmarked for the screw needed to keep a bridge from collapsing on a grade school’s Thanksgiving parade.
And that is what galls me. If the sequester goes into effect, the federal budget for this year will still be larger than last year’s ($3.553 trillion in 2013 vs. $3.538 trillion in 2012). With the sequester in effect, federal non-defense spending will still be 10 percent higher than it was in 2008. But Washington, led by Obama but with GOP help, is telling the American people that unless government gets an even bigger raise (with money borrowed from China, by the way), civilization will unravel, 911 calls will go unanswered, and Bane shall irrevocably seize control of Gotham.
The federal government has grown inexorably for decades. Our president casts himself as a Solomonic manager, and yet he is saying that absent a few extra pennies on every dollar, there’s no way he can maintain government’s core functions? A manager in any other field of human endeavor would be fired on the spot for making such an argument. But in Washington, this passes for leadership.
— Jonah Goldberg is editor-at-large of National Review Online and a visiting fellow at the American Enterprise Institute. You can write to him by e-mail at JonahsColumn@aol.com, or via Twitter @JonahNRO. © 2013 Tribune Media Services, Inc.