Sequestration exemptions are shaping up to be Washington’s newest version of earmarks.
Agencies, companies and other groups are on the hunt for Capitol Hill allies with the juice to save their pet issues from the full force of the across-the-board cuts. Some have already been successful.
The campaigns are just one example of Washington slipping back into business-as-usual, where powerful players are open to satisfying special interests, even on sequester — which wasn’t supposed to play favorites.
“This parochial interest nature of Congress is re-emerging in, I think, an unseemly way,” said Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.).
“We’re moving into some dangerous territory if we just allow every member to pick areas that they think ought to be changed,” added Sen. Jeff Flake, the Arizona Republican who made a name for himself in the House by ridiculing earmarks in appropriations bills.
The article points out that this flies completely in the face of the intention of the sequester which was to force both sides to come together on a new budget. Remember, the idea was that the Republicans would be seeking to protect the defense industry and the Democrats would want to protect everyone else and so they’d be forced to deal.
But now that the cuts are starting to bite, the two sides are in there using their clout to make exceptions for their constituency. This would logically mean that when a Republican comes up with an exception to his favored defense contractor, a Democrat on the committee says, “sure, I’ll allow that as long as you agree to vote for my district’s mental health clinic.” Or a Democrat wants some Head Start money freed up and the Republican replies, “sure, if you’ll agree to keep my bomb factory funded.” It’s not optimal, of course. This is a really stupid way to fund our government. But it greases the skids in a polarized political world and could theoretically end the sequester cuts eventually if everyone plays the role they were assigned.
So how’s that going? Well …
The Obama administration has led the charge with exceptions, finding flexibility that it previously said it didn’t have. Pentagon officials have said they already plan to scale back the number of furlough days for civilian employees from 22 to 14, and Navy officials say they even could skip forcing staff to take days off entirely and still meet their budget-cut quota.
Ok, so much for holding the GOP’s feet to the fire on defense. Not surprising, of course. Unlimited money for defense is one area of bipartisan agreement, which is why the sequester was always idiotically tilted in the GOP’s favor. On the other hand, there are signs that all is not lost:
On Capitol Hill, meat inspectors and a popular military tuition program offer textbook examples on how to skirt sequestration as the two main items to score reprieves in last month’s continuing resolution that President Barack Obama signed into law.
Both issues had bipartisan sponsors who moved quickly to get their cause on the docket. And both also tugged at the heartstrings of fellow lawmakers, with warnings of soldiers unable to register for classes and threats of food shortages and Americans getting sick from eating tainted food.
“It was the right thing to do,” said Sen. Jim Inhofe (R-Okla.), who joined with Sen. Kay Hagan (D-N.C.) on the tuition amendment.
“I think we made a compelling case that this directly impacted the private sector,” said Sen. Mark Pryor (D-Ark.), who partnered with Sen. Roy Blunt (R-Mo.) on the meatpacker language that won voice-vote approval with an offset targeting a school breakfast grant program popular with the White House. “When you were furloughing the meat inspectors, you were furloughing a whole plant. I think that’s true. We had the facts to back it up.”
Other issues still simmering as possible candidates for sequester exemptions include the National Institutes of Health, where scientists fret that funding lapses will undercut the continuity needed for key areas of research. NIH advocates say they’re optimistic after House Democrats and Senate Republicans expressed interest in beefing up the institute’s spending levels during last month’s budget resolution debate.
The sequester has brought back the one thing that makes bipartisan governance possible: horse trading. It’s a terrible way to govern but in a system run by money and parochial needs, perhaps it’s the only way to do anything for the people. Certainly it’s better than the meat ax system (also known as “a balanced approach” and a “Big Deal”) has proved itself to be.
I still think the best thing to do is repeal the sequester and put forth a sane budget. But barring that, it looks as though we’re seeing how they plan to get around it. I’m sure it will result in the poor and vulnerable getting the short end of the stick since there are far more Democrats who will protect defense spending than there are Republicans who will defend spending on the poor and middle class. But if the Democrats even make the slightest effort to represent their constituency they might be able to substantially mitigate the damage.
It’s a crappy result on virtually every level, but that’s what the botched budget negotiations of the past few years have left us with. And the Grand Bargain can’t fix it (thankfully.) Now that they’ve started carving out exceptions, it’s hard to see how they go back.
The future of budget negotiations is looking clearer by the day: “I’ll scratch your back if you scratch mine.” Waddaya gonna do?