Now that it is crystal clear that Republicans are happy to cut needed government spending in an era when the economic recovery remains fragile and when Keynsian prime-the-pump stimulus is still needed, observers across the political spectrum have suggested that President Obama miscalculated in assuming that the GOP would step back from the brink. While that may or may not be the case, the administration still has an opportunity to give the Tea Party a dose of its own medicine, and to prevail in the sequester debate.
To begin, the president could announce that to achieve savings required by the sequester, he will use executive authority to redirect federal spending away from Tea Party districts, in other words districts that are represented in the House by members of the Tea Party or conservative Republicans, and that are located in states with two GOP senators. If voters in those districts want to be represented by officials who oppose government spending, the president should, within the limits of the law, oblige.
Sure, courts may step in and block executive efforts to direct spending away from some districts and towards others. But it could nonetheless by symbolically useful for the White House to stand up to fiscal extremists in a more emboldened way. As it does so, progressives could continue to remind the public of how hard conservatives have worked to direct federal spending to their districts at the same time that they strive to deny it to everyone else, such as when Paul Ryan trashed the president's stimulus package despite his having asked for stimulus funds for Wisconsin.
Is it irresponsible to ask the president to do what he can to direct spending away from Tea Party districts? Maybe. But whenever I think of the Tea Party, I remember a 2010 New York Times interview in which the reporter asked a party member to defend her monthly social security check given her opposition to government spending. Her response? "That's a conundrum, isn't it? I don't know what to say. Maybe I don't want smaller government. I guess I want smaller government and my Social Security. I didn't look at it from the perspective of losing things I need. I think I've changed my mind." This is the mindset of those who have hijacked federal policy.
It would also help if the White House asked Republicans to specify exactly how much smaller they want the U.S. government to be compared to governments of other modern societies. Non-military federal spending as a share of the economy is only 17 percent, roughly half of what other countries spend. (The 17 percent figure assumes a defense budget of roughly $1 trillion, the sum of the Pentagon's official budget plus other defense-related spending distributed across a range of federal programs).
Seventeen percent is a miniscule amount, and shows that we take worse care of seniors, students, sick people, poor people and infrastructure than other comparable countries. Even when one adds in state and local spending, non-military spending is low. Every time Republicans mention a "spending crisis," we should remind them that our non-military spending is at historic lows (to say nothing of the fact that they were the ones who busted the federal budget with tax breaks for the rich, and who blocked the only path to significant cost savings, single payer health care.)
It would help, as well, to be more forceful in driving home the message that the government spends (wastes) a lot more on tax breaks for the rich than assistance for the poor. The federal government spends about twice as much on the mortgage interest deduction, for example, than low-income housing, and provides most of the mortgage interest gift to upper income people who don't need it. Is it really necessary to spend federal dollars (via tax expenditures) subsidizing multi-million dollar second homes?
Finally, progressives should stop saying that sequestration cuts will undermine national security. To the contrary, the nation spends more on defense than all of its enemies combined, and there is no national security justification for our bloated military budget. The Pentagon's excessive budget is more a reflection of the political muscle of the military-industrial complex than a realistic assessment of the nation's security needs, even if one favors an expansive global role for US forces. If there is any silver lining to the sequester, it is in demonstrating that cuts to the military budget have no impact on national security. If anything, the cuts are too small.