I'm going to admit right up front here that I swiped the concept for my title from Kurt Vonnegut Jr.'s novel Mother Night. Blue Fairy Godmother budget cuts, to define my homage, are those that can only be seen and believed in magically, and offer further magical protection from any political harm. So it goes.
We all now live in a post-sequester world. We're all waiting for the axe to fall. Meanwhile, in Washington, Republicans in Congress are openly admitting that their main job is just too tough for them to do. They are publicly stating their own incompetence. In fact, they are unconstitutionally begging the president to do their job for them.
Things have gotten so strange and fantastical, I found myself in rare and open agreement with Senator John McCain yesterday. McCain was reacting to the newest Republican plan, which is to give the president what they call "flexibility" in spreading around the sequester cuts, so they somehow won't hurt as much. When the host of Face The Nation, Bob Schieffer, asked McCain whether "people on the extreme ends of your party" are "holding the rest of you hostage here," McCain answered [emphasis added]:
I don't think -- frankly, it's the extreme ends of the party. I think a lot of it is just people who don't understand. We -- we put up a proposal and most Republicans voted for a, quote, "flexibility" for the President of the United States. I spent hundreds of hours with Carl Levin shaping a Defense Authorization Bill. So now we're supposed to just give all of that over to the President of the United States? That's a violation of my constitutional responsibilities. So, I say in respect that it isn't so much to the extremes as much as it is a lack of appreciation of the world we live in, and this has been manifested at other times and other ways as well.
McCain's got it exactly right, in calling out his own political party's nonsense. It is a violation of the Constitution for Congress to just throw its hands up in the air and let the president do whatever he wants with the budget -- even if Congress limits the money the president can spend. It is, in essence, saying "here's a blank check, we don't care how you spend it" rather than doing the job of writing a budget. This is unconstitutional for a very good reason. This is why the Supreme Court threw out the "line-item veto" that Congress tried to hand to President Clinton. It is the duty -- the constitutional duty -- of Congress to write the budget.
In fact, the Constitution goes even further and states that all bills which spend money must originate in the House of Representatives. This goes to the heart of the matter. The framers of the Constitution put that in there for a good reason -- it wasn't just some random clause inserted because they thought it sounded nice. The reasoning is simple: the House of Representatives is the closest to the people and must face re-election every two years. Therefore, if they screw things up, the voters will quickly replace them -- faster than the president or the Senate can be replaced in such a fashion. The budget is Congress' main responsibility. Much as some Republicans now would like to, they just cannot punt this responsibility to the Executive Branch. Doing so is not allowed.
Of course, what's really going on here is Republicans are finally facing the hard fact that the American people, in general, actually like all that stuff that government does. While "cut spending" is a dandy campaign slogan because it sounds so simple and easy to accomplish, when you get down to the actual spending, most people approve of most of it. What this means is there is always going to be some pain when the budget is cut. This is a hard truth Republicans have been trying to avoid, in their search for Blue Fairy Godmother cuts.
Of course, the media lets them get away with it, for the most part. We've just been through a sequester media onslaught, and how many times was a Republican asked the basic question: "Are you for the sequester or against it?" or the crucial followup question: "So what would you cut instead?" I still can't even figure out what the "party position" on the sequester is for Republicans. That's a basic failure of journalism, for the most part.
Here's the exchange I've been waiting for, between a reporter and a Republican member of Congress:
"Senator, you're a Republican. The Republican Party is supposed to be the party of budget cutting, so do you support the sequester or not?"
"I think we could be much smarter about how we go about these cuts, but the president got his sequester, so here we are."
"But you voted for the sequester, didn't you?"
"This is the president's sequester."
"Which you voted for, Senator Blatherskite. So, a general question, are you for cutting the budget?"
"Of course I am."
"The sequester cuts the budget. So, are you for it?"
"Well, no, because it's President Obama's sequester."
"So you're against cutting the budget because the president supports cutting the budget, even though you and your party are for cutting the budget?"
"That's not the way I'd put it. Look, there are much smarter ways of cutting the federal budget than the meat axe of the sequester. Even Democrats agree with that statement."
"OK, then what would you cut instead?"
"I would rein in entitlements, that's where the real savings can be found."
"Would you accept a so-called Grand Bargain with the Democrats where a few tax loopholes were closed and entitlements were reformed?"
"No, I'd never accept a dime in new taxes."
"Well then, entitlements are never going to be changed -- Democrats will never accept anything short of a Grand Bargain. So let's just leave the Grand Bargain on the side for now. This puts entitlements and taxes out of the conversation entirely -- which is exactly the prospect you face with the upcoming continuing resolution right now, Senator. Since everyone seems to agree that the continuing resolution will continue the sequester budget levels -- that's pretty much a given, from what I hear -- then we return to the question at hand now. You say the president is making the cuts in the wrong places. You say he's scaring the public with dire warnings of people being fired. So, if he's cutting the wrong things, then what would you cut instead?"
"Well, I'd restore all the military cuts."
"OK, then you've got to get twice as much savings from other discretionary spending. So what would you cut? What, exactly would your party cut?"
This is the main question the Republicans want to avoid: "What would you cut instead?" Because when the rubber meets the road, they refuse to answer that question. In fact, they're terrified of it. They want Blue Fairy Godmother cuts -- budget cuts that nobody can see where they came from, and that magically protect Republicans from political harm.
Consider: both of Paul Ryan's budgets punted on laying out specific discretionary spending cuts. Mitt Romney refused to detail these cuts during his campaign. The GOP party line since the election has been a bizarre pretzel twist in logic, even more pretzelly than usual -- Obama won the election, therefore he needs to lead, and the direction he needs to lead in is 100 percent where we tell him we'd like to go and away from what he ran on, but we're not going to even provide the slightest hint of how we'd like to get there, and we're going to blame him later for whatever route he picks.
What else can you call this but Blue Fairy Godmother thinking? Obama is supposed to provide all the magic budget cuts Republicans want, and then Republicans can vote on them, and forevermore blame Obama for all of them? What fantastical universe does that sort of thinking come from? And yet, every time John Boehner says, "the president has to lead, the House isn't going to do anything until he offers up his budget cuts," this is exactly what he means.
Should anyone doubt that this is the way Republicans are thinking right now, just look at their attempts to "blame" Obama for the sequester. Why, in the first place, should they be "blaming" Obama for something their party wants to happen? That, right there, makes no sense at all -- which is why it is so hard to pin down any Republican on whether they "support" the sequester or not. Supporting the sequester means supporting budget cuts, but it also means supporting something they say Obama did, when they are always against everything Obama does -- and that's an expert level of Republican doublethink to hold in your brain simultaneously, and many of them aren't up to the challenge. Even setting that monstrous problem aside, however, look at the modus operandi underlying it: blame Obama for budget cuts. This, the Republicans dearly hope, will work once again, if they can just get the White House to propose the specifics of all the budget cuts. That way, they can all go home to their constituents and any time anyone complains about a budget cut they can just shrug and say: "Obama did it -- it's his fault."
Deep down, Republicans know that cutting federal spending is going to be unpopular when it happens, no matter what gets cut. They've been avoiding specifying their cuts for this very reason. They are, in fact, not only refusing to do their basic job, they are also attempting to give away their constitutional duty to do so to the president. House Republicans are expected to offer up their budget document for the next fiscal year later this month. If it's anything like the last two budget documents they passed, it will refuse to specify which cuts will be made in discretionary spending. It will instead be filled with "we'll get around to these details later" promises. Budget cuts from the magic land where anyone harmed by them will never, ever blame Republicans, who will all live happily in Congress ever after. In a phrase: Blue Fairy Godmother budget cuts.
[Program Note: Today's column should have been our monthly look back at President Obama's job approval polling numbers, but for some reason RealClearPolitics.com hasn't updated their charts (where we draw our data from) for the past week or so. Hopefully, by Wednesday, they'll have fixed the problem. Apologies for the delay.]
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