John Boehner's Sequester Gift to Democrats

House Speaker John Boehner (R-OH) speaks about tax measures during a news conference in Washington, D.C. Photograph by Andrew Harrer/Bloomberg

Over at New York magazine, Jonathan Chait has a good post explaining how John Boehner has trapped himself on the looming budget sequester. What Boehner desires most is to cut entitlement programs such as Medicare and Medicaid—or, to employ the euphemism Boehner himself uses in today’s Wall Street Journal, to “reform America’s safety net and retirement-security programs.”

The problem, as Chait points out, is that cutting these programs is deeply unpopular. Boehner has not proposed how he would do so—he doesn’t dare. He needs the political cover of Democrats’ cooperation but won’t entertain the new tax revenue necessary to secure it. As a result, he’s almost certain not to get the cuts he wants. Meanwhile, his own party may be headed for a crack-up.

But Boehner’s situation is actually a good deal worse than Chait implies. That’s because Republicans are not only likely to get stiffed on entitlement cuts; if the sequester is allowed to take effect, they’ll face the added ignominy of seeing Democrats achieve their own long-sought goal of enacting deep cuts to military spending.

In 2011, when the terms of the sequester were being hashed out—its purpose was, you’ll recall, to be so unthinkably terrible that Congress would agree to a deal rather than let it bite—Democrats wanted to include automatic tax increases (because what could be more terrible to a Republican than tax increases?). Republicans said no way. So the all-cuts sequester wound up being tilted in a way that was much worse for Republicans than it was for Democrats, both because Democrats’ cherished entitlement programs were largely spared the axe and also because the cuts to the military that Republicans now want to undo were especially deep**.

Boehner, Lindsey Graham, John McCain, et al., weren’t really exaggerating last year when they called the sequester “draconian” because, from the standpoint of a typical Republican, it is pretty draconian.

What’s remarkable and underappreciated about Boehner’s terrible negotiating skills is that he not only failed to secure the Democratic cover he needs to achieve his party’s goals, but he has also inadvertently provided Republican cover to allow Democrats to achieve one of their own. For decades, liberals have longed to cut military spending but didn’t dare make a push for fear of being painted as pusillanimous and weak. (That’s how Michael Dukakis wound up in a tank.) The few liberals who tried, such as former Representative Barney Frank (D-Mass.), had trouble drumming up support on the left or the right. Three years ago, when Obama proposed his budget-freeze gimmick to appease deficit hawks, he pointedly exempted military spending.

But now, suddenly, the Pentagon budget stands to be slashed deeper than any self-respecting liberal would have dared to imagine even a few short years ago—and Republicans, led by John Boehner, put these cuts into law and provided cover.

**As Bloomberg Government’s Rob Levinson pointed out, the defense cuts actually hit Democratic districts much harder than Republicans ones, not that anybody has seemed to notice.

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