The $85 billion in automatic cuts required in the so-called “sequester” were supposed to feel so dire that both Democrats and Republicans would fear letting them take effect — and would instead strike a broader, long-term bargain to significantly reduce the nation’s budget imbalance. But here comes the sequester anyway: As today’s deadline neared, there was little motion toward a deal.
Instead, the most ideological elements of both parties have talked themselves into thinking the cuts aren’t intolerable after all. Liberal Democrats don’t just like the deep reductions in the Pentagon budget; they also steadfastly oppose any modification of future Medicare and Social Security benefits, which is one crucial element of a long-term budget deal. Tea Party Republicans don’t just see any spending cuts as a positive; they also oppose any further revenue increases, which are the other crucial element of a deal.
This intransigence comes at a double price for the country. Not only will sudden cuts deliver a blow of austerity to an economy that remains weak, but the cuts will also fall heavily on the kind of investments that move our economy and society forward. While the prospect of furloughs of Washington bureaucrats may not move many hearts, looming cuts in scientific research that saves lives and extends the limits of technology will be particularly damaging in Massachusetts.
November’s election should have put to rest the question of where the public stands: President Obama, who advocated a balanced mix of tax revenues and benefit changes, prevailed over a Republican challenger who preferred far deeper cuts. At the least, Republicans should now be able to accept getting rid of various tax loopholes and obvious corporate subsidies. But some flexibility is needed on the other side, too. In particular, members of the all-Democratic Massachusetts delegation should recognize that a refusal to contemplate any reductions in entitlements, however distantly in the future, will threaten the nation’s ability to support all other goals — including research crucial to the Commonwealth’s economy and countless Americans’ health.
As the week wore on, Senate Republicans unsuccessfully pushed a measure to give President Obama more authority about how and where to make the $85 billion in cuts. Such a deal would have absolved Congress of responsibility for the consequences of the cuts without getting the country any closer to the broader deal that is so manifestly needed. Yet it also hinted at grounds for a compromise. If, as part of a broader long-term deal, Republicans in Congress demanded some short-term cuts but offered Obama significant latitude in allocating them, the president should accept.
Ironically, the meat-ax nature of the sequester has made compromise harder, rather than easier. For months, many in both parties assumed that, because the issue was surely going to get resolved somehow, there was no need to give up substantive ground. Perhaps today’s deadline will clarify the discussion. Why make the wrong cuts the wrong way when the terms of the right budget deal are obvious?