If you've been attempting to keep track of how congressional Republicans view the coming sequester cuts at home, you've probably been leaning heavily on the Klonopin, to settle your erupting brain. For a while, the GOP warned about the dire consequences of the sequester. Then, after the fiscal-cliff deal, they let out that they'd be perfectly happy to see sequestration imposed. Next, there was a huge row in the media, attempting to pin the blame for the sequester squarely on the Obama White House. Then, after the Obama White House started darkly warning of the terrible things to come if the sequester happens, the GOP mounted the case that the sequester isn't all that big a deal. From there, they seem to have decided to combine these talking points in a sometimes simultaneous and contradictory hash, depending on the wind direction and barometric pressure.
Now, there's a new new concept in the sequestration debate: flexibility. What does that mean, exactly? Something pretty hilarious, as it turns out. Here's Sen. Mike Crapo (R-Idaho), showing up in The Hill, about two weeks ago:
Sen. Mike Crapo (R-Idaho) said that conservatives wanted to keep the same amount of spending cuts, but that Republicans could be open to a measure that gives agencies more flexibility on how to implement the sequester.
“The same savings, I think, can be achieved in most budget arenas without the kind of damage to programs,” Crapo said.
This idea has gained momentum in recent days. On the most recent edition of "This Week With George Stephanopoulos," Mike Rogers insisted that what was needed to avoid devastating cuts to defense was "flexibility." Representative Reid Ribble (R-Wis.) has gone so far as to introduce "a bill aimed at allowing government departments more flexibility to transfer funds from the spending accounts they control." Fox 11 in Wisconsin reports:
“This measure will help spare the programs that are beneficial, while allowing managers to trim the areas that are less essential,” Ribble said in a news release. “We are never going to trim the fat with an across-the-board cut. Pinpointing areas of waste is where our attention is needed and this bill will help that effort.”
It all sounds fairly reasonable -- allow agencies to control their own purse strings, under the direction of the White House. But the White House has rejected the plan as not serious. As The New York Times' Jonathan Weisman and Michael Shear reported, "Jay Carney, the White House spokesman, dismissed the Republican plan, saying that no amount of flexibility could mitigate the damage of the automatic cuts," adding that "such changes could help only 'on the margins.'"
George Will, on the aforementioned edition of "This Week," intimated that the White House was against having "flexibility" because they "want to maximize the pain," of the sequester. But that's a decidedly difficult case to make, considering the fact that what the White House clearly wants to do is replace the sequester with a "grand bargain," and avoid "the pain" altogether.
The push to give the White House "flexibility" has not been unilateral. As Weisman and Shear go on to report, Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) "condemned it as an unacceptable ceding of Congressional authority." And Sen. Tim Kaine (D-Va.) also scoffed at the idea, saying, "These guys bash the president nonstop ... Then they are going to take the power of the purse and say, ‘We are so unable to do our job we are going to give you complete flexibility to do it’? There’s an irony there."
Ha, well, yes! I would definitely say there's an "irony" there! Let us recall, if we've the strength to remember, that the entire sequester crisis was the product of the 2011 debate over the debt ceiling, at which time the GOP dug in so hard against the notion that the White House should have "flexibility" in controlling the budgetary purse strings that they were willing to push the economy to the brink of destruction by defaulting on the nation's sovereign credit. The sequester was the cost of avoiding that calamity. And now, the movement afoot in GOP circles is to cede back budget authority to the White House? It sure was fun, participating in all those exciting fiscal crises that followed in the wake of Republicans' initial opposition to that very notion.
UPDATE: And how hard did the GOP push against the notion that control of the "purse strings" should be ceded to the White House? Here's House Speaker John Boehner, in December of 2012, in the weeks that lead up to the "fiscal cliff" standoff: "Congress is never going to give up our ability to control the purse. And the fact is that the debt limit ought to be used to bring fiscal sanity to Washington D.C."
So, what's really going on here? Well, you have to remember that the basic budget conversation has gone like this: First, the congressional Republicans demand budget cuts. Then, the White House asks, "What budget cuts do you have in mind?" The congressional Republicans reply, "Nuh-uh. You go first, White House." And the White House balks, because they recognize that this is just a stupid guessing game called "Let's Try To Figure Out What Will Make The GOP Conference Happy," in which the object of the game is referring to whatever the White House comes up with as laughably "unserious."
Let's do something we don't always have the opportunity to do: credit Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.), who opposes this "flexibility" gambit, for helping us to demystify the game:
But Graham's most remarkable words came when he was asked about an alternate plan, floated by Senate Republicans, to grant President Barack Obama greater authority to target the $85 billion in cuts slated for this year.
"We'll criticize everything he does," Graham acknowledged. "We'll say, 'Mr. President, it is now up to you to find this $85 billion in savings and we'll say it’s to make it easier for you.' But every decision he’ll make, we'll criticize."
So, let's recognize "flexibility" for what it is: a Trojan Horse. And let's wonder why, after taking the debt ceiling hostage in a psychotic attempt to demonstrate just how much control they wanted to have over the purse strings, the hot new innovation from some congressional Republicans is just to let the White House take the lead on budget-cutting.
This sure has been one weird journey to Congress ultimately deciding that maybe they shouldn't have any institutional power whatsoever!
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