POLITICS
05/04/2013 09:00 am ET

Repeal The Sequester! Let's Do It!

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Something awfully troubling has been happening lately in the world. I've been plagued by a nagging sense of ... optimism. As a result, I'm not sure what to do with either myself, or the doomsday-prepper supply of diazepam I keep hidden under the floorboards of my apartment.

I don't want to jinx anything, but here's what's been going on lately. I keep reading about how the House GOP is "dealing with an unprecedented level of frustration," and "split by warring factions." This inevitably mucks about with the "permission structure" that would be necessary to bring about a "grand bargain." As every day without a grand bargain is a happy day for America, this pleases me greatly.

At the same time, things are going pretty badly for the gaggle of pundit-idiots who espouse "Leadership Surrealism" -- the notion that President Barack Obama would be able to get his way on legislation if he'd only use his magical Green Lantern ring on a permanently intractable pair of Republican caucuses -- the House majority and the Senate super-minority. See, they had a pretty good run of it, until Maureen Dowd decided that she wanted to splash around in those waters, too. The moment she associated herself with Leadership Surrealism, she brought that movement thunderous ridicule.

Obama gingerly trolled the Leadership Surrealists by pointing out the obvious fact that he was not empowered to make his opposition "behave." His contention was swiftly confirmed by Sen. Pat Toomey (R-Pa.), who -- chastened over the defeat of the Manchin-Toomey gun background checks amendment -- spoke aloud the truth that everyone had long been avoiding admitting -- that moving any significant legislation that Obama supports is a complete non-starter because Republicans in Congress have distilled everything they believe to be "good politics" down to the notion that anything Obama supports must be crushed instantly. Right now, the only thing preventing a major dental hygiene crisis in Red State America is that Obama has not publicly endorsed toothpaste.

But the happiest thing going on in the political discourse is how the whole fiscal discussion seems to be changing from hack-dominance to, potentially, something more sensible. The catalyzing event seems to have been the work of America's greatest graduate student, Thomas Herndon, who was afforded the opportunity to analyze the data set of economists Carmen Reinhart and Kenneth Rogoff -- whose very famous study, which contends that there are debt/growth tipping points, had become the urtext of the global austerity movement -- and very quickly determined that it was riddled with errata and LOLs.

This touched off something of a sea change. As Politico noticed, a sudden "intellectual shift away from austerity" became plainly evident. Alan Simpson and Erskine Bowles dropped an austerity re-up package on the editorial page of The Austerity Pimp Bible Washington Post, and the world succeeded in not caring a whit. And the media in general, as Kevin Roose noted at length, seems to be parting ways with austerity: "Sometime last year, an odd thing happened to the austerity debate in America: All of a sudden, reporters began asking questions." (HUFFPOST SPOILER: The media will find all kinds of "answers" when they get back together with the ongoing aggregate demand/unemployment crisis.)

So, I'm happily buzzing about a lot of things lately! There is a lot of potential now for a nice, sustained period of "garbage in/garbage out." But I still have great concerns of one last large stinking pile of turds in the Augean stables of our politics -- the sequestration. It's time for that to go. We need to repeal it outright and we need to do so today.

The need to just repeal the damn sequester shouldn't take a lot of subtlety to explain. It was designed to be a terrible mistake -- a deformed and irredeemable bit of public policy that was supposed to be avoided at all cost. The only reason it exists is because lawmakers, after demonstrating themselves to be wholesale incompetents at "coming together" and doing a "big deal" on the "deficit," decided that what they really needed was a law that forced them all to choke up on a loaded gun, which would go off if they failed (in their "supercommittee") to come to an agreement. In the end, they of course failed, but in a last-minute twist, those same lawmakers realized that the sequestration gun wasn't actually pointed down their throats. It was pointed at ordinary human Americans. So they clicked the safety off, let fly fusillade of needless pain, and then all sat back for a round of "How did this happen?/Who is to blame?" grab-ass.

I feel like I need to underscore this! The sequestration was something that nobody believed was either acceptable public policy or sensible economics. The whole point of it was a failed attempt at a sword of Damocles. "Come to a sensible arrangement on spending cuts/revenues or there will be an insanely stupid arrangement imposed on the entire country, who will have to pay for your immense cock-ups." The sequestration stands as a testament to great error, and it's punishing all the wrong people.

Hey, lawmakers, let me yell at you for a little while. I know that some of you meant well. I know that when you set up the supercommittee/sequester two-step, you guys really, really thought that this time, it was going to work. You guys didn't want this to happen.

You know, no one wanted Old Yeller to get infected with rabies either. The fact that Old Yeller caught rabies was a result of a lot of institutional failures pertaining to wolf-protection. There was a lot of blame to go around, frankly. But in the end, Travis Coates nutted up and went out into the yard and put Old Yeller down. What he did not do, is say, "Well, I know that this situation isn't ideal, but we should consider basing all future discussions about budgetary matters on the fact that we have this crazy, dangerous dog in the yard."

It's time to put the sequestration down, lawmakers. Shoot the sequestration, right in its face.

The thing is, lawmakers, you know full well that it's time to repeal the sequestration, but you've recently admitted that it was a terrible, intolerable mistake that needs to be corrected. You guys made that tacit admission when you halted the sequester-related impact on commercial flights. I mean, it took a long time for you to figure it out. You guys very pointedly acted like you'd not been warned about it. But by God, once you figured it out you moved to fix the matter with swiftness, and had yourselves a nice little celebration over what you'd accomplished.

But you can't walk away now that you've made this admission. If part of the sequester is an unendurable, it follows that the entire thing is unendurable. And if you are not careful, you might end up turning "fixing the sequestration" into a nonsensical race to the bottom, where powerful interests muscle their way to the front of the line and demand to be served next. This is not going to reflect well on you guys. As you pick winners and losers, it will become abundantly apparent that you all basically answer to your major donors and industries that fund your re-election.

(Honestly, this should already be apparent to everyone, but I digress.)

One might be tempted to argue that the sequestration at the very least serves a vital purpose in bringing down deficits. One should shut up. The simple fact of the matter is that we are living in a Golden Age of deficit reduction. We may be doing too much, actually. As Jed Graham explained back in February:

Here's a pretty important fact that virtually everyone in Washington seems oblivious to: The federal deficit has never fallen as fast as it's falling now without a coincident recession.

To be specific, CBO expects the deficit to shrink from 8.7% of GDP in fiscal 2011 to 5.3% in fiscal 2013 if the sequester takes effect and to 5.5% if it doesn't. Either way, the two-year deficit reduction -- equal to 3.4% of the economy if automatic budget cuts are triggered and 3.2% if not -- would stand far above any other fiscal tightening since World War II.

So the sequestration isn't really helping to do much more than add further fear of a return to recession. Murdering the sequestration in cold blood should be something of a no-brainer, then. If you need a brain, lawmakers, you can borrow mine.

I try, but I'm not sure what it's going to take to make it painfully clear to lawmakers that the sequestration needs to be put to the torch with all deliberate haste. One reason is that most legislators are affluent bubble-dwellers with a lifetime insulation from the sort of pain the sequestration causes. Ordinary human Americans, currently hoping that the fitful economic continues and expands, are in an entirely different position. Kevin Roose is relatively optimistic that we are currently in "a solid, sustained recovery." I want him to be right. But look what shows up on his list of concerns:

Two things about today's jobs report, in particular, concern me.

One is that it's going to be tempting, given how good the numbers look today, to write off sequestration as a non-issue. It's a testament to the fundamentals of the economy that even our bone-headed fiscal policy can't slow the recovery, but the numbers could be improving much faster if sequestration weren't holding them back. It's still an inexplicably stupid program, and it still needs to be fixed.

True that. As bad as the sequestration is getting for people out there in America, the thing is only getting started.

Look, if you don't believe me that the sequestration needs to drowned in a bucket of pudding, maybe Walter Shapiro can convince you. His salient point is that there is "no economic basis" -- none, the null set! -- for the sequestration:

To begin, the economy is fragile enough that GDP barely grew in the 2012 fourth quarter, when inventory purchases and federal spending both slowed more than usual. Just last weekend, the Moody’s credit-rating agency stripped the United Kingdom of its AAA credit rating—not because U.K. deficits are too high, but because Britain’s premature austerity policies are leaching away the growth required to make its deficits manageable. The Moody’s decision echoed recent pronouncements by the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank warning against precipitous moves to bring down cyclical deficits. The prescription for U.S. policy, then, should be clear: deep-six the sequester.

Our political debate has linked a need for quick action against deficits to the debts run up in the 2008–09 financial crisis and the deep recession that accompanied it. In fact, the austerity argument gained traction only when the euro-zone crisis unfolded, and Greece became the poster country for what happens when deficits spiral upward. Back home, those looking for any reason to cut federal spending quickly cast Greece as a cautionary tale for the United States. Yet, once again, the analogy has no economic basis.

Now, Shapiro and I might argue over what the best course is for budgets and spending and the deficit. But this is sort of the point! We can't have a sensible debate over the best course for budgets and spending and the deficit while the sequester is sequestering. The sequestration puts us all in an inane environment. We are paralyzed. It was meant to paralyze us. The sequestration was designed to be a terrible punishment. It needs to be done away with, tout de suite.

I know what you're thinking. "What then? Aren't we stuck with the same gridlock?" Sure, we are. And I know I outed myself at the top of the piece as being okay with a certain amount of gridlock if it prevented a grand bargain. And I know that some of you dream of that grand bargain, because it is your pony. And we each think that the other is stupid. But here's the thing: the sequestration isn't helping any of us! It helps no Democrats. It helps no Republicans. We should all unite against it. This is that episode of "the Superfriends" where the Justice League of America and the Legion of Doom team up to fight somethine even more terrible.

Given the time and space provided by a sequestration-free world, we might come to some sort of sensible accord on all of the fiscal issues that matter to us. Heck! We might even decide to table any concern over the long-term trajectory of fiscal policy until the massive unemployment crisis is resolved first. Wouldn't that be something? People might start thinking of lawmakers as "adults" again, instead of a bunch of brain-dead, slop-eating nimrods.

But first you have to kill the sequester. Kill it with fire.

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