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GOP Plan to Torpedo Economy With Sequester Could Backfire in 2014

If progressives are vocal about the dire impact of spending cuts, they can build momentum for a "Big Flush" of the GOP.
 
 
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It appears increasingly likely that congressional Republicans will allow the “sequester” of automatic, indiscriminate spending cuts to take effect on March 1. If so, they will cause a major economic and political crisis for the country. But this prospect also creates opportunities for progressive activists and organizations. We may be able to avoid the disaster, or if it occurs (which seems more likely), we can make clear that congressional Republicans are responsible and should be flushed out of office in 2014. The 2014 congressional elections could be a truly transformational moment for the United States if a tidal wave of outrage were to drown ultra-conservative Republicans in competitive and “safe” seats alike.

The February 17 NYTeditorial, “The Real Cost of Shrinking Government,” sketches out some of the most alarming likely impacts of the next seven months of sequester. The roughly 8 percent cuts in military programs and 5 percent cuts in all (!) domestic discretionary programs will operate like a meat-axe, with terrible macro-economic effects (perhaps a million jobs lost if they go on for two years) and a great deal of inefficiency, danger and human suffering as everything from HeadStart to air traffic controllers to nuclear safety is impacted.

My own view is that the military should be cut by much more than 8 percent, but this is not the way to do it. Randomly destructive cuts are likely to backfire and might ultimately lead to more unnecessary military spending rather than less. Every one of the domestic cuts will be harmful to the country.

The facts about the devastating effects of the sequester are well known to experts in CBO, think tanks and the like, but they are not yet on the radar screens of most ordinary citizens. The NYT editorial, though imperfect (e.g., not making clear the sources for its estimates), constitutes a useful wakeup call for elite audiences and should be disseminated. Others, including the White House and House Democrats, are beginning to say the same sort of thing. But much more will be needed in order to reach all progressive activists, let alone the average American. It is important to get the word out.
 
Only if there is an enormous storm of outrage about effects of indiscriminate budget cutting can we hope to stop the sequester or build momentum toward a Big Flush in 2014. Maximum public outrage will probably arise only after the cuts actually take effect and the impacts are directly felt. But it is important to lay the groundwork now.

Progressives should more and more loudly warn about the upcoming effects. Then they will be poised to make still more noise when the cuts actually occur and effects begin to accumulate, and when the crisis broadens in March into comprehensive battles over taxing and spending via a “Continuing Resolution” or a budget. Remember that the “fiscal cliff” of automatic, mandatory long-term spending cuts was only postponed until March or April. GOP obstruction could prevent action and cause catastrophe.
 
Conventional wisdom says that the President’s party nearly always loses congressional seats in off-year, non-presidential elections, especially midway in the President’s second term. That would seem still more likely after the remarkable post-2010 GOP success in gerrymandering congressional districts -- packing huge numbers of Democrats into just a few districts -- so that even a national majority of votes for Democratic representatives might in 2014 (as it did in 2012) perversely produce a Republican majority in the House.
 
But the far-rightward lurch of the GOP has created an opportunity to make the 2014 elections a dramatic exception to the usual pattern. If House Republicans and far-right senators keep to their present course, if they are clearly shown to be obstructionist, out of touch, and opposed to key policies that large majorities of Americans favor, and if 2014 sees a 2012-style, highly mobilized national campaign, I believe we can protect the Democratic majority in the Senate (where conventional wisdom says quite a few Democrats are vulnerable) and even flush the Republican majority out of the House.

Paradoxically, GOP gerrymandering could actually contribute to the magnitude of such a Big Flush. By GOP design (seeking to maximize the number of seats they win), many “safe” GOP seats are only moderately safe, with just 10% or so expected victory margins. A really strong national tidal wave could sink large numbers of them, in safe as well as competitive seats, just as happened to “safe” Democrats in 1994 and 2010.

Recommendations

  • Progressives need to get their facts together -- precisely and carefully -- about the likely impacts of spending cuts. The NYT editorial did pretty well, but we can do better. We need to start NOW to issue pithy warnings that include startling concrete examples.
  • Some warnings should be aimed at groups and NGOs associated with specific issue areas – children, the environment, education, veterans’ health, infrastructure etc. – which will then amplify the message and pass it on. This can be done by targeted emailing. Recipients should be urged to bombard members of Congress of both parties.
  • More general warnings should be aimed at the general public, both through mass media, blogs, etc., and through mass email alerts of the sort that MoveOn does so well. Again, everyone should be urged to communicate with members of Congress from both parties. Pressure on the GOP might lead them to fold; if so, fine. More likely they will defy their constituents and let the sequester occur. Exposure of their actions can then feed into a Big Flush in 2014.
  • After issuing warnings we should be poised, if the sequester takes effect, to document and publicize actual effects as soon as they begin to be felt.
  • We should monitor GOP senators and reps closely, recording and publicizing their specific vulnerabilities, such as out-of-touch comments or votes. Those who have (amazingly) spoken in favor of the sequester should be pilloried. (Maybe give Howard Dean a pass on grounds of past service.)
  • We should BEGIN TO MOBILIZE FOR 2014. Every effort should be made to carry out a Big Flush from Congress of ultra-conservative Republicans who have obstructed progressive policies at every turn. If this is done, the last two years of President Obama’s second term could make history, upsetting the usual political wisdom and bringing back to life progressive policy proposals that have been thwarted for decades.

Benjamin Page is the Gordon Scott Fulcher Professor of Decision Making in the Department of Political Science, Northwestern University. He is coauthor (with Robert Y. Shapiro) of The Rational Public: Fifty Years of Trends in Americans’ Policy Preferences.