The Sequester Is a Disaster, and Congress's Next Move May Be Worse

From national parks to medical research, cuts are undermining what makes America great. Yet Republicans seem set on shutting down the government or even default.
Budget cuts have forced the National Park Service to cut back services and maintenance across the country. (Matt Mills McKnight/Reuters)

As readers of my past columns know, I was not exactly optimistic as we approached crunch time over the debt limit in 2011. But I am far more pessimistic now. At a dinner I attended Monday night with a host of those individuals deeply involved in fiscal matters, it became clear that there are no talks going on now — neither formal nor back channel — to avoid a series of crises over spending and the debt ceiling. The House majority is in profound disarray, unable to muster majorities for anything on the spending front as the new fiscal year approaches.

In a misguided attempt to mollify his radicals and avoid a government shutdown over the demand to abort Obamacare, House Speaker John Boehner has instead turned the focus to the debt ceiling. His earlier assurance that he and his party would not play games with the nation's full faith and credit turned into a pledge weeks ago into to invoke the "Boehner Rule," insisting that the debt limit be raised only by an amount equal to additional new spending cuts — meaning trillions of additional dollars piled on to the $2.5 trillion in cuts already made (but of course with no specifics about what he would want to cut). And it is clear that a slew of Republicans inside Congress, bolstered by forces outside like Heritage Action, will push their crusade to crush Obamacare by holding the debt-ceiling hostage.

In 2011, when the intensive negotiations between Boehner and President Obama broke down, Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell stepped in at the 11th hour to fill the vacuum and avert a default. When Boehner declared that he would not participate in any negotiations over the fiscal cliff, McConnell partnered with Vice President Joe Biden to fill the vacuum. This time? There will be no McConnell; the minority leader is so cowed by the challenge to his renomination from the right that he will not be a party to any "compromise." And the informal negotiations between Obama, his Chief of Staff Denis McDonough, and a group of Republican senators led by Bob Corker have broken down, at least for now.

At this point, I will be surprised if we do not have at least one partial government shutdown within the next month or two, and I fear there is a high chance of a real breach in the debt ceiling, one that may not last for a long time, assuming that the markets react violently to something they still believe will not really happen, and that voters react to the notion that the U.S. will pay its creditors in China before it pays its troops in Afghanistan. But a default this time will have devastating consequences, meaning a downgrade in our credit by all ratings agencies and a spectacle to the world of spectacular, self-destructive dysfunction.

I could go on, but I want to focus instead on the damage already occurring from the 2011 deal, via the sequester. The mindless, across-the-board budget cuts in domestic and defense discretionary spending were openly and deliberately designed not to occur — the idea was to spur the "supercommittee" created by the deal to do a broader fiscal bargain, along the lines of the Simpson-Bowles proposal, to avoid sequester catastrophe. But the "no-taxes" pledge killed the chance for that broader deal. We have had one year of the sequester, and are approaching the second tranche. The damage to the country and the fabric of governance was not immediately apparent — this was not like the roof of the American house on fire, but more like a particularly potent group of termites eating out the foundation. But its impact is becoming more apparent and more alarming.

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Norm Ornstein is a correspondent for The Atlantic, a contributing editor and columnist for National Journal, and a resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute for Public Policy Research.  More

Ornstein served as codirector of the AEI-Brookings Election Reform Project and participates in AEI's Election Watch series. He also serves as a senior counselor to the Continuity of Government Commission. Ornstein led a working group of scholars and practitioners that helped shape the law, known as McCain-Feingold, that reformed the campaign financing system. He was elected as a fellow of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences in 2004. His many books include The Permanent Campaign and Its Future; The Broken Branch: How Congress Is Failing America and How to Get It Back on Track, with Thomas E. Mann; and, most recently the New York Times bestseller, It's Even Worse Than It Looks: How the American Constitutional System Collided With the New Politics of Extremism, also with Tom Mann.

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