A Peek Under the Hood of Sequestration Politics

That can be difficult through the fog of political war that has hung over this town. But a step back illuminates roots deeper than the prevailing notion that Washington politicians are simply fools acting for electoral advantage or partisan spite.

Republicans don’t seek to grind government to a halt. But they do aim to shrink its size by an amount currently beyond their institutional power in Washington, or popular support in the country, to achieve.

Democrats don’t seek to cripple the nation with debt. But they do aim to preserve existing government programs without the ability, so far, to set levels of taxation commensurate with their cost.

At bottom, it is the oldest philosophic battle of the American party system — pitting Democrats’ desire to use government to cushion market outcomes and equalize opportunity against Republicans’ desire to limit government and maximize individual liberty.

And they are fighting it within a 21st century political infrastructure that impedes compromise.

Those government initiatives include Social Security from FDR’s New Deal, Medicare and Medicaid from LBJ’s Great Society, and the new 2010 national health care law. President Obama wants to keep them in roughly their current forms — even as the wave of baby boom retirements makes them costlier than ever.

His Republican opponents are the philosophic heirs of conservatives who opposed their creation in the first place. Beginning in 2009, they gained fresh momentum in the quest to roll them back.

While the Great Recession depressed tax revenues, the Wall Street bailout and stimulus bill gave Americans sticker shock; deficits topped $1 trillion annually. So in 2011, the newly elected Republican House began pushing President Obama backward in budget fights that forced significant slowing of federal spending and some significant spending cuts.

Their climactic showdown over the debt limit in 2011 damaged the nation’s credit rating. With both sides battered and exhausted, Republicans joined Democrats in seizing budget sequestration as the means to end the impasse.

Then Mr. Obama stopped backing up — and moved to generate momentum of his own.

The right’s soft spot, as Ronald Reagan and Newt Gingrich learned amid the conservative ascendancy of the 1980s and early ‘90s, is the popularity of expensive “entitlements” serving the elderly.

“Cut spending,” as a general invocation, is popular. “Cut spending for your mother’s Medicare” is not.

Mr. Obama used his re-election campaign to isolate and attack that vulnerability. Acknowledging the need for some entitlement cuts, he offered voters this budgetary choice: his smaller cuts combined with tax increases on affluent Americans, or the Republicans’ bigger ones without tax increases.

More Americans, as polls have repeatedly shown, prefer Mr. Obama’s approach. He won the election.

Now the president is trying to wield his public opinion advantage as a club to back Republicans down.

The budget cuts of 2011, like sequestration now, targeted smaller “discretionary” programs that don’t command the support Medicare and Social Security do. Mr. Obama argues, and some Republicans agree, that Washington has cut most of what it can from those.

He continues to advocate comparatively modest Medicare cuts focused on reimbursements to doctors and hospitals — more near-term cuts, in fact, than Republicans have been willing to specify. But at one high-profile event after another, in Washington and across the country, he accuses Republicans of preferring reduced benefits for old and vulnerable Americans over higher taxes on the affluent.

Article source: http://www.nytimes.com/2013/03/02/us/politics/a-peek-under-the-hood-of-sequestration-politics.html?partner=rssnyt&emc=rss

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