An unwillingness to negotiate makes budget politics a farce

It’s beyond bad when federal budget politics starts to resemble an absurd movie.

Yet now sequestration looks like a hostage situation right out of “Blazing Saddles.” In this Mel Brooks film from 1974, the new sheriff, facing hostile townspeople, gets creative. Bart, the sheriff, induces them to put down their guns by taking a hostage: himself. Holding a pistol to his head, he says, “Next man makes a move, [the hostage] gets it!”

The sequester takes hostage our national economy, threatening to destroy jobs and undermine the economy.

It’s the latest in high-stakes budget crunches. After the last one — involving the “fiscal cliff” — was resolved in December 2012, House Speaker John Boehner told his fellow Republicans that he wouldn’t directly negotiate with President Barack Obama.

Republicans still refuse to talk unless it’s an approach Americans don’t want: all cuts.

Sequestration was adopted in 2011 to defuse Republicans’ threat to default on the national debt and to force national politicians to make a deficit deal later.

With negotiation in bad odor among Republicans, sequestration would cut defense spending across the board by 9.4 percent and other spending categories by 8.2 percent. Since some programs are exempt, many sorts of domestic spending would be hard hit.

The Congressional Budget Office predicts 750,000 fewer jobs. Economist Stephen Fuller of George Mason University forecasts larger job losses – more than 2 million – when accounting for federally-funded workers losing jobs and the economic effects of laid-off workers’ decreased spending. Whatever the number, this self-inflicted wound would cause the economy to shrink, perhaps pushing the nation back into recession.

In Maine, the defense cuts would lead to 7,000 fewer jobs, as Department of Defense civilian payrolls were cut by $41 million. Other cuts will hit Acadia National Park, border posts, air traffic control, Meals on Wheels, and myriad other federal grants and programs. These will drag down Maine’s economy, already recovering slowly.

Meanwhile, people don’t want most government spending cut. According to a new poll from the Pew Center asking about different types of spending – including education, crime-fighting, scientific research, health care, aid to the needy in the U.S. and more – in 18 out of 19, more people want spending increased or held steady than cut. And “there are only two possible reductions that draw majority support from Republicans – foreign aid (70 percent) and unemployment assistance (56 percent).”

What people overwhelmingly want is for government officials to compromise, to negotiate a plan that includes new revenues and spending cuts. Only 19 percent want a plan with solely cuts, with 76 percent supporting a mixture of taxes and cuts. On the revenue side, majorities of people across the political spectrum support closing loopholes that benefit the most wealthy.

Obama has a detailed plan to replace the sequester that includes 60 percent of cuts and 40 percent of revenues from closing tax loopholes. Yet congressional Republicans refuse to meet with Obama and won’t consider a dime of new funds, even as they decry the harm that will come from the sequester.

As conservative columnist Byron York declaims, “Could the GOP message on the sequester be any more self-defeating?” “[T]he president certainly agrees with Boehner that the sequester cuts threaten national security and jobs. The difference is that Obama wants to avoid them.”

Right now the annual deficit is falling rapidly; in January there was a budget surplus. Broad cuts would slow the economy and undermine this fiscal progress and create larger deficits.

Surely something will come along to prevent this self-inflicted wound. Right now it’s unclear whether the solution will involve a turn to compromise or another plot line out of a Mel Brooks movie.

Perhaps this time House Republicans will plan, a la “The Producers,” to induce too many investors to mount a play that looks like a sure flop. You never know.

Note: Congratulations to my fellow columnist Matt Gagnon, who “Business Insider” named one of the fifty “hottest people in online politics” for his work for the Republican Governors Association. My first memory of Matt dates to fall 2000. I invited Republican, Green and Democratic students to a class to make presentations on their parties’ presidential candidates. Matt’s was clearly the best. He is a graduate of UMaine’s political science department and now an award-winning strategist. Once again, congratulations, Matt!

Amy Fried

About Amy Fried

Amy Fried loves Maine's sense of community and the wonderful mix of culture and outdoor recreation. She loves politics in three ways: as an analytical political scientist, a devoted political junkie and a citizen who believes politics matters for people's lives. Fried is Professor of Political Science at the University of Maine. Her views do not reflect those of her employer or any group to which she belongs.