An Urban's Rural View

On Bluffs, Miscalculations and Sequestration

Urban C Lehner
By  Urban C Lehner , Editor Emeritus
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As the much-feared "sequestration" looms, threats and aspersions are flying in the nation's capital.

The Obama administration says it will have to furlough meat inspectors and shutter FSA offices and do other dreadful deeds if Republicans don't cooperate and agree to a "balanced" package of tax hikes and spending cuts by the March 1 deadline.

The Republicans say they don't want "the president's sequester" -- it's his idea, they stress -- but he isn't giving them any choice. He refuses, they say, to get serious about spending cuts.

Each side contends the other is more interested in assigning blame for sequestration's $85 billion in across-the-board spending cuts than in negotiating a more sensible deficit-reduction plan. Each side thinks the public will blame the other.

All of which raises two questions: Who is bluffing? Who is miscalculating?

Is the administration bluffing when it threatens to suspend meat inspections, shutting down meat factories and throwing tens of thousands out of work? Are the Republicans bluffing when they say they are prepared to live with sequestration, despite the blow it will deal to the military?

It's tempting to think both sides are bluffing. Surely USDA can and will find a way to swallow its cuts without forcing the nation to go vegan. Surely the Republicans can and will blink on raising additional revenue before allowing soldiers to go untrained.

Unfortunately, it seems likely neither side is bluffing. For the administration, making sequestration as painful as possible once it kicks in will provide leverage in the negotiations to end it. If the public doesn't notice sequestration's effects, the administration's logic would go, why would Congress feel the need to do anything about them?

For the Republicans, sequestration with all its flaws seems a less politically dangerous place to draw the line on spending than the alternatives. They already backed off on taking the nation over the fiscal cliff and they're going to be queasy about shutting the government down at the end of March when the "continuing resolution" expires.

If neither side is bluffing, is either (or both) miscalculating? Conventional wisdom says the Republicans are. The public is predisposed to blame them, polls show, and the president isn't running for re-election and thus has little to lose.

In truth, though, Republican Congressmen may also have little to lose.

By some estimates only 15% of this country's Congressional districts are truly competitive; 85% keep sending the same party back to Washington, election after election. The public may blame "Republicans" in the abstract for the sequestration but chances are the many safe Republican districts will continue to return Republicans to Congress, just as safe Democratic districts will continue to vote Democratic.

If the Republicans have indeed miscalculated and end up taking a beating in the 2014 elections for sequestration, will they do anything different in the next Congress? Maybe.

We've already seen a GOP turnaround traceable to an electoral defeat, and on an issue agriculture cares about. Having decided their stance on immigration hurt them big with Hispanic voters last year, Republicans are proving much more willing to deal on immigration reform.

There's still a lot of dealing to be done, especially on border security. But for the first time in years, immigration-reform legislation looks doable.

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Bonnie Dukowitz
2/22/2013 | 9:42 AM CST
The sky is falling! There might be a slight decrease in the huge automatic increase. If sequestration were adjusted to 20%, a measurable beginning might show up. Some states have increased spending by 20% or more per year for decades.