Tuesday, March 5, 2013

Time has come today:
The sequester and the fallout

Rise up, O God, and save us from ourselves.

— Barry Black, United States Senate chaplain, 

March 1, 2013

ON FRIDAY, Senate Democrats failed to get the 60 votes they needed to stop $85 billion in automatic, across-the-board budgetary spending cuts that were set to take effect that day. With the dreaded sequester now a fact of both the national lexicon and the national life, pain is about to become a small-d democratic experience.

The early estimates have been ugly, a panoramic Chicken Little scenario on steroids: According to estimates from the Center for Budget and Policy Priorities, as many as 775,000 women and infants may lose WIC food and formula assistance; another 125,000 people may lose housing assistance and be forced into emergency housing; still another 100,000 people, formally homeless, may be jettisoned from emergency shelters and back into the streets. And 3.8 million long-term unemployed workers who get federally funded unemployment benefits are looking down the barrel of an 11 percent cut in weekly benefits.

Think Progress reported that the sequester cuts will mean 34,000 fewer law enforcement officers with domestic violence training, and 112,000 fewer women who’ll get counseling from domestic abuse counselors. and The New York Times reported on Saturday that in Virginia, almost 90,000 civilian workers for the Defense Department face being laid off.

The sequester that officially started on Friday started in the real world on Monday, with some so-far selectively granular effects on the nation. Health and Human Services Secretary Janet Napolitano said “we are already seeing the effect at some of the ports of entry, the big airports, for example.” As a result of furloughed TSA personnel, lines at some airports are “150 percent to 200 percent as long as we’d expect.”

But unlike the clock-hard finality of a full government shutdown, the sequester is primed to be the malign gift that keeps on taking, a timed-release catastrophe, something happening so slowly and incrementally that it defies being seen for what it is: a slow, mean, angry undoing of what makes America America.

◊ ◊ ◊

This latest protracted aria in the opera that is our dysfunctional American government is unsettling for other, bigger reasons. Thanks mostly to Republican intransigence as a legislative business model, we’re witnessing the institutionalization of crisis, a kind of a Disaster of the Month Club according to the U.S. Congress.

Republicans there and conservatives elsewhere in Washington have enshrined the idea of government on a short leash, the United States being compelled to lurch from one contrived crisis to the next.

We’ve seen this play out in the “fiscal cliff” hostage-negotiation drama last year. We’ve seen it in the pointlessly drawn-out wrangling over the confirmation of Sen. Chuck Hagel to be secretary of defense, and the ongoing skirmishes over John Brennan’s nomination to lead the CIA.

The end result is obvious: Politically, it means that Republicans are determined to hobble President Obama at every turn, by hamstringing not just his appointees but also the agencies depending on congressional confirmation of those appointees, effectively decapitating vital parts of the American government.

Domestically, it means that the myriad millions of small,  personal, kitchen-table economies that comprise the wider American Economy will be held hostage to more of the  scheduled brinkmanship on Capitol Hill.

Internationally, it means there will be lowered global expectations of what the greatest nation on earth can hope to achieve in policing its own economic house, even as the United States criticizes others for not doing the same.

◊ ◊ ◊

IT’S NOT like we couldn’t see this coming. On MSNBC’s “Hardball” program on Feb. 20, Adam Schiff, California Democratic congressman, talked about the Tea Party gang:

“They really have two minds. You have got the Tea Party contingent that wants to tear down government that ran on
a platform of tearing down and has never made the transition to being for 
anything. And right now they’re driving the train. They want the 
sequester to go into effect.

“They want it to go into effect because they want to show that they’re 
serious about this and they feel that’s their mandate. At the same time,
 it’s going to be enormously destructive to the economy. We are poised to make a recovery, and ... if the Congress could get out of the way and stop manufacturing these crises month after month, I think we would have a full recovery.

“... [W]hen we go through these manufactured crises, we deprive the economy and businesses of
that ability to plan. It’s incredibly destructive. ...

“A lot of people run for Congress against the government. That’s a tried tradition in American history. But usually, once they have office and they have a responsibility 
to govern, they find they have to be for something as well. But this crowd has never made the transition to being for something.”

◊ ◊ ◊

In the short term, it’s a moderate hit to the president, and hardly the way to start a second term in office. And the potential damage to the country is clear. But the Republicans in Congress, may yet suffer the biggest blow.

We got a hint of that two weeks ago, when the Pew Research Center released a poll of Americans on who’d get the blame if the sequester came off as scheduled. Forty-nine percent said they’d blame Republicans in Congress; 31 percent said they’d blame Obama.

Already the claimants of a reputation for willful obstruction, the Republicans will burnish that rep even more, if that poll’s to be believed.

◊ ◊ ◊

BUT THE sequester’s impact is not a water’s edge phenomenon. The GOP, the cultivators of this impasse, has created a new American export all its own: a deeply cynical signal to the world of Republicans’ willingness to advance their political agenda at all costs, with the loss of the honor and prestige of the United States as just so much collateral damage.

It’s cynicism you can set your watch by. The next crisis on the calendar is dead ahead. Circle the date March 27. That’s when the continuing resolution for fiscal year 2013 expires, and the United States government runs out of money, paving the way for another possible shutdown of that government by congressional Republicans. And don’t forget May 19, when the three-month suspension of the U.S. debt ceiling ends and fresh GOP intrigue likely begins.

On Rachel Maddow’s show on MSNBC, on Friday, Dan Rather, the former CBS News anchor now with AXS television, spelled out what it means. “We’ve put ourselves forward as the model for the world. We have a republic based on principles of freedom and democracy. We know to make it work. But what we’re saying to the world [is] ‘we can’t make the thing work.’ ... It diminishes our ability to influence events in the rest of the world ... They look at us and say, ‘you can’t even get your own house in order, don’t be telling us what to do.”

◊ ◊ ◊

Perversely, all of this may ricochet against the Republicans in another way. As the various layoffs, closures and denials of service kick in, little by little, citizens around the country will experience the impact of the sequester in a fully nonpartisan way, and not as an abstraction or a talking point.

From the military to the working poor, from mothers dependent on the mercies of WIC to the airline passenger dependent on making a scheduled flight, from victims of domestic abuse to other everyday people just trying to survive — the democracy of austerity will be imposed uniformly. Just as uniformly as the Republicans in Congress will be blamed for it.

Those everyday people will remember the concrete, tangible things that government does, the real, necessary services that government provides. And they will remember the administration that tried to bring those functions and services into their lives. And they will remember the ones in Congress who fought to take those things away.

And at the proper time, they will act accordingly.

Image credits: Obama: Via The Huffington Post. Sequestration budget cut graph: Center for Budget and Policy Priorities. Sequester impact on Pennsylvania: U.S. Army via politics.pa.

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