House Democrats' Faustian Bargain on Boston and the Sequester

Steny Hoyer suggests that the attacks provides the latest proof that Congress needs to repeal the sequester. Has he thought this one through?
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Reuters

On the first day of a tragedy, everyone agrees that it's no time for politics. On day two, however, it's open season, apparently.

It's hard to process something like the Boston bombing and speak intelligently about it. Examples of unwise reactions abound, but let's concentrate on what House Democrats said today. Politico's Jake Sherman has the report:

House Minority Whip Steny Hoyer (D-Md.), speaking to reporters Tuesday morning, said the bombings are "clearly another place where it demonstrates why having the ability to address security concerns is important."

Hoyer added: "I think there are multiple reasons for ensuring that we invest in our security both domestic and international security. That we invest in the education of our children, that we invest in growing jobs in America and don't pursue any irrational policy of cutting the highest priorities and the lowest priorities by essentially the same percentage."

Rep. Xavier Becerra of California, the chairman of the House Democratic Caucus, said that the first responders working Monday aren't sheltered from cuts.

"We have to send you less money to help your first responders," Becerra said.

This seems like a risky line of argument for Democrats, even with Hoyer's hedging. In the short term, there's a question of taste and accuracy. People aren't taking his comments well (just check Twitter). Even if the Maryland congressman offered it the best faith, it smacks of political opportunism. And moreover, is there any evidence that more funding for law enforcement and security from the federal government would have made any difference in this attack, even if sequestration's effects were in place? Certainly not yet; it's far too soon to tell.

In the medium to long term, however, the greater danger for folks like Hoyer and Becerra is that they'll win. To recap the sequester debate to the crassest of generalizations, Republicans like that the sequester cut spending, but are unhappy about cuts to specific programs. In particular, the hawkish wing of the party was horrified by defense cuts. Democrats, meanwhile, saw little to like. They worry that cutting federal spending now will slow down the economy, and though they were mostly OK with the defense cuts, they were horrified by cuts to a slew of discretionary programs, stuff like Head Start, FEMA, public housing, USAID, the NIH ... the list goes on.

Right now, there's little movement on repealing the sequester on Capitol Hill. But if Democrats were to succeed in ginning up enough concern about the bombing to get security funding beefed up, where would they be? Perhaps it would reduce the drag on the economy from the cuts, marginally. But surely it would also mean a lower chance of reinstating funding for the social programs they love so much, and in the long term a greater redistribution of government funding toward the security and military apparatus the party has long expressed a desire to cut (at least in theory). Is that really what Steny Hoyer wants? Perhaps it would have been good to wait a little longer to speak.

Update: I heard from Becerra's spokesman, who argued, essentially, that the congressman had been entrapped -- reporters presented the connection between the sequester and the bombing, and Becerra and Rep. Joe Crowley reluctantly offered their honest assessment of how the sequester will affect first responders. You can watch and judge for yourself. Regardless, I think this shows the Democratic dilemma: It's hard to draw attention to the long-range impact of sequestration but easy to note discrete, unusual events like the bombing. And the squeaky wheel, if any, will get the grease.

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David A. Graham is a senior associate editor at The Atlantic, where he oversees the Politics Channel. He previously reported for Newsweek, The Wall Street Journal, and The National.

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