The Political Realities of Sequestration

imageNow be honest, before last summer had you ever heard the term, sequestration? Though I’m sure I did, I can’t recall when, and I am quite certain I wouldn’t have known the correct Jeopardy question, “What is the term used to describe the legal confiscation and possession of a defendant’s property in lieu of a judgment or court order?” And that’s not even the popular meaning now embedded into our political lexicon.

I have come to understand that Congress’ use of that term dates back to the 1985 Gramm-Rudman-Hollings Balanced Budget and Emergency Deficit Control Act in which it was used as a means of reforming Congressional voting procedures and intended to raise that body’s consciousness that budgeting should be a process of allocation from funds available – rather than an exercise in arithmetic reflecting the outcome of decentralized appropriations (insert favorite form of sardonic humor here).

The idea was that if the combined totals of appropriation bills passed separately by Congress resulted in spending in excess of the limits agreed to by Congress in the annual Budget Resolution, and then if Congress could not agree on ways to reduce that spending (or did not pass a higher Budget Resolution), then there would be an automatic reduction in spending: the aforementioned sequestration.  For me (and I’m sure many of you), this is a rather easy concept to understand because that’s how sequestration works in our house when our appropriations exceed our funding: we often call it, “cancelling our dinner reservation for Saturday evening.”

Back in fantasyland, however, the automatic reduction was to be sequestered by the Treasury and not disbursed as originally appropriated by Congress. In theory, the application of the sequestration is to be regarded pro rata across all agencies, though Congress has typically exempted certain programs such as Social Security and Defense.  The practical result has been that agencies not exempt would experience a disproportionate share of the spending reductions in order to achieve the total sequestration amount mandated.

As retired Senator, Phil Gramm, noted, “it was never the objective … to trigger the sequester; the objective was to have the threat of the sequester force compromise and action.”  Well, as we’ve seen, there is one thing that simply cannot be forced in Washington right now, and that is compromise. The reason for this is the stark contrast in political realities currently characterizing the two major parties.

The Obama Administration believes it won an electoral mandate to advance the country further in the direction of European style Social Democracy (different than Socialism, but closer than many in this country probably realize). And as Bob Woodward recently found out, they are taking a Machiavellian approach to whatever – and whoever – stands in their way. Woodward has lifted the curtain on the Administration, and he has garnered the attention and concern of a lot of folks, life myself, who have generally been supportive of it. And though I very much doubt it was his intention – or concern – he has created a strategic political opportunity for Republicans.

Unfortunately for their party, however, the Republicans are still wandering aimlessly in the sociopolitical dessert of the late-middle 20th Century, looking for the ghost of Ronald Reagan – or any ideological mantra that could garner greater than 50% support of their tattered leadership. In addition, because of the tremendous expense involved in campaigning in an era of modern media and super PAC’s (even in fending off same-party candidates in primaries), having party power of the House of Representatives is like having a gun with one bullet.  The party in power now gets one shot in a Congressional session to make a political impact.

So what we have is not a game of Chicken, where we wait to see which side blinks first.  We have a legitimate ideological stalemate that is being advanced and dominated by the promotion of minority interests holding sway over the respective parties. I say this because according to opinion polls I’ve seen, a significant majority of this country is in favor of raising taxes in order to pay down debt. What that majority is not in favor of is raising taxes to expand entitlements (there is also significant support for raising taxes and reducing entitlements).

The Administration wants to raise taxes to protect and expand the entitlements that are a critical component of their social agenda, while the Republicans want to reduce entitlements without raising revenue (taxes) so as not to alienate their primary campaign funding sources. The sad irony here is not that elected officials from both parties are acting selfishly in their political self-interests. That we’ve come to expect.  The sad irony is the perceived belief that placating minority interests is in their political self-interests more so than acting in harmony with the majority. Now, why is that?



  1. Sparky writes: “Well, as we’ve seen, there is one thing that simply cannot be forced in Washington right now, and that is compromise.”

    This is followed by some very partisan non compromising statements that reflect one’s belief that taxes can solve a spending problem. We have already seen taxes raised on the rich as requested by the President. We have also seen loads of taxes raised on those earning less than $200,000 in Obamacare and elsewhere. What we haven’t seen is a decrease in spending. Instead we see increasing spending and budget deficits that keep climbing. My understanding (correct me if I am wrong) of the amount being sequestered is that if the sequestration takes place we will still spend more than last year yet the President keeps increasing the amount of spending. When does it end? When we replace Greece in first place?

    Where is the politics? Smack in the middle of the Democratic Party. When they controlled the House and Senate they didn’t provide a budget so at least the American people could be aware of how much spending they intended to do. The President keeps talking about getting the budget under control along with spending and all he does is increase the amount we spend. There is no honesty there. Finally he complains about sequestration and blames others for it, but he was the one that suggested it in the first place. This doesn’t mean the Republicans bear no blame, for they do, but they have not been in power for the past 4 years so it is time to place the blame where the blame should be on the Democrats and the President.

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