The Perfect Logic of Boehner’s Crazy Sequester Strategy

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Photo: Brendan Hoffman/2011 Getty Images

The mystery of John Boehner’s sequestration strategy — What are they thinking? How do they imagine it will work? — is slowly coming into focus. Viewed as a plan to accomplish some policy end, it makes no sense. But that doesn’t seem to be its main intent. Boehner’s plan seems mainly designed to keep John Boehner from losing his job. In that sense, and in that sense only, the logic holds.

The first thing to understand is how crazy the Republican strategy is as a partywide approach. Sequestration is automatic cuts to spending, but only to the parts of the federal budget that Republicans hate the least. Their least favorite part of the federal budget — anti-poverty programs — is exempt. Their second least-favorite part — broad social insurance programs, meaning Medicare and Social Security — is also exempt. What’s being cut is discretionary government spending, which Republicans dislike in theory but not so much in practice, and defense, which they quite like.

Obama is proposing to replace these cuts with a mix of cuts to social insurance and reduced tax deductions. So break down the deal into two parts. In one part, Republicans would get to cancel out the defense cuts in return for reducing some tax exemptions. Depending on how much a given Republican likes defense or hates making the rich pay more taxes, that trade is anything ranging from a win to a medium-size loss.

The second part of the deal involves canceling out the domestic discretionary cuts and replacing them with cuts to Social Security and Medicare. That is a major win for any Republican. Republicans hate social insurance way more than they hate highways, food inspectors, national parks, and the other mundane government functions in the discretionary budget. What’s more, the social insurance cuts are designed to save a lot more money over the long run than they would over the next ten years, which means Obama is offering to cut spending by a far greater amount over the long run than keeping sequestration in place.

So why do Republicans deem Obama’s offer so unacceptable they won’t negotiate over it? Tyler Cowen attempts to rationalize it without fully endorsing it, but winds up pointing toward some of the same conclusions I did yesterday:

Correctly or not, many Republicans believe …

Deep historical pessimism is justified, as the United States is sliding into a morass of ever greater statism …  Currently a majority of the public does not agree with the conservative Republicans and that is where the pessimism comes from. …

All recent Republican strategies to stop this slide have been failing … Furthermore, short-term deal-making and policy trade-offs, even if they represent moderate improvements, will not reverse or even much slow down this slide.

This is just a way of saying that most Republicans are seized with apocalyptic economic terror, and cannot or will not rationally identify actual problems and work pragmatically toward their resolution.

Indeed, their plan of forcing high-profile confrontations with Obama almost surely weakens their position in every way. Obama is much more popular than they are, Obama’s budget proposals are much more popular than theirs, and Obama has a much more advantageous platform with which to communicate. Republicans would be much better served to sit down and negotiate with Obama now. Once sequestration starts to bite, defense contractors and other businesses harmed by it will be howling for Boehner to compromise, and rational party leaders will likewise begin to panic at a reprise of the Gingrich-era government shutdown that cements the party’s image as a pack of loons.

But Boehner can’t negotiate now. Indeed, his members were so angry at the fiscal cliff deal — even though it did not come out of negotiations with Obama — that Boehner had to promise no further secret negotiating with the president. (And, of course, secret negotiating is the only kind of political negotiating. Politicians don’t horse trade in public.) Boehner has to lead his party into a huge fight or else risk being deposed.

Jake Sherman’s report on Boehner’s thinking contains a number of useful clues. Boehner, he reports, will cut a deal in the end: “Republicans are aiming for an eventual package that will include a hefty dose of spending cuts and reforms like a change to calculating government benefits called chained CPI and closing a few tax loopholes.” Obviously, Boehner wants the spending cuts to be as big as possible, and the higher taxes as small as possible, but cutting a deal is the endgame.

Why not do it now? Because Boehner understands that “starting off this new session of Congress by hiking taxes again would be akin to political suicide for the Ohio Republican.” He has to show the ultras he’ll fight. If the GOP takes a major hit in the process, which it almost surely will, then he’ll have an internal rationale to compromise. Boehner is marching his party into war because the guns facing his troops are less dangerous to him than the ones pointed at his own back.