The Shameful Sequester Vote: Bad for Democrats, Worse for Democracy

Wouldn't it be nice if Congress protected the poor with the same verve with which they rush to protect annoyed upper-middle-class flyers?
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The morality play known as "Sequester" is entering its third act this week, and what a spectacularly awful and pointless piece of theater it has been. In the pre-curtain progloue, the president cuts a deal with the GOP to avoid a debt ceiling crisis in 2011. They schedule a law so stupid, so unfair, and so blatantly misguided that Washington could ever allow it to become law, right?

Right!?

Wrong. Act I opened in March of this year, on the eve of sequester's across-the-board spending cuts. With the parties as entrenched as ever -- Democrats: "Raise taxes"; Republicans: "Never" -- the unthinkable law didn't just become thinkable. It actually became the law.

In Act II, the White House warned of sequester's chaos -- flight delays! furloughs! relentless cable news coverage! -- but as the spending cuts faded in slowly, the effects were small, and people began to wonder whether the they will have any effect whatsoever.

But now it's Act III, and Chekhov's gun has gone right off: FAA furloughs and the specter of massive flight delays screamed across cable news tickers this week. The House immediately  voted overturn the FAA cuts.

This vote is bad for Democrats, but more importantly, it's bad for democracy. It's bad for Democrats because, as Jon Chait notes, excluding the most painful cuts from sequester obviates the whole point of sequester. Sequester was supposed to be so stark and painful nobody could stand it; not pretty painful but easily tolerated with some fixes. If Republicans can pick and choose which cuts to reverse, Democrats will have utterly lost their grand strategy to force the GOP to accept higher taxes.

But, far more importantly, the vote was bad for democracy. A Congress reacts to flight delays but not to low-income families losing housing vouchers and unemployment check cash is a body of elites representing elites. Matt Yglesias passes along a relevant graph from Larry Bartels' 2005 paper on "Economic Inequality and Political Representation" that found both Democrats and Republicans are particularly good at representing their middle-class and high-income constituents, but not so responsive to what poor people want or think.

DemsvsRepubsresponsivnesstorich


And, of course, the other loser of sequestration in 2013 will be the U.S. economy. Today's GDP report put U.S. growth at a plodding 2.5 percent. The unemployment rate is still in the high 7s. Meanwhile, with inflation and interest rates low, it is the perfect time to run higher deficits rather than pass austerity legislation that was designed to be an unthinkably bad law, anyway.

In the end, I have to agree with Chait. This play's finale was written by the prologue, when the White House agreed to negotiate with Republicans over the debt limit and gave birth to this awful policy. Sequestration theater was fated to end poorly for all of its principals. 

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Derek Thompson is a senior editor at The Atlantic, where he writes about economics, labor markets, and the entertainment business.

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