A Better Republican Sequester Strategy
The spending cuts pose perils for both parties. How the GOP can win public opinion to its side.
Congressional Republicans are simultaneously united, divided and confused about the $85 billion of cuts in defense and domestic discretionary spending that begin on March 1 when the budget sequester takes effect.
Republicans are united in their dislike of across-the-board cuts but understand that this is the only way now to restrain federal spending. The GOP-controlled House twice passed bills, in May and December of 2012, that replaced the sequester with targeted reductions to less essential programs. Both measures were ignored by the White House and Democratic Senate. This led to the current impasse.
Nevertheless, there are philosophical and tactical divisions in the party. While most House Republicans worry that defense cuts will harm national security, a minority welcomes them. GOP Congressmen are also split over whether the House should approve a continuing resolution (or "CR," to fund the government through the rest of the fiscal year) before or after the sequester begins.
As things now stand, cabinet departments will have to cut equally from programs important and insignificant, efficient and inefficient. But Republicans are confused over how to provide federal agencies with the flexibility to adjust their budgets under the sequester. Flexibility means giving the executive branch, e.g., President Obama, greater authority. Republicans are loath to do this, but many fear that without this authority the sequester will be especially damaging to military readiness.
And so Republicans don't know whether they should pass a separate flexibility measure next week, incorporate flexibility language in the continuing resolution, or simply paste the Department of Defense and Military Construction appropriations bills language into the CR.
Forward motion shows the GOP acting responsibly while inactivity allows Mr. Obama to keep the public spotlight on him. My own recommendation is that House Republicans should pass a continuing resolution next week to fund the government for the balance of the fiscal year at the lower level dictated by the sequester—with language granting the executive branch the flexibility to move funds from less vital activities to more important ones.
True, Mr. Obama may use that flexibility to cut spending that Republicans favor. Still, the GOP will be acting responsibly, and perhaps by doing so will put the president and Congressional Democrats a bit on the defensive.
Above all, the GOP must also keep setting the record straight for the public. It was Mr. Obama, not the Republicans, who came up with the sequester in the summer of 2011. In November of that year the White House said that the president "will not accept any measure that attempts to turn off part of the sequester." Now Mr. Obama describes his own sequester cuts as "sudden, harsh, arbitrary" and "brutal."
On Tuesday he paraded first responders onto a stage to demand that Republicans "protect . . . education and health care and national security and all the jobs that depend on them" by passing his "balanced approach to deficit reduction that would prevent these harmful cuts."
Yet Mr. Obama has never offered a specific plan for deficit reduction. Douglas Elmendorf, the director of the Congressional Budget Office, acknowledged this recently when Sen. Roger Wicker (R., Miss.) asked if he could score the president's speeches.
Last week, some Senate Democrats did suggest $55 billion in cuts (half from defense and half from the farm program), coupled with $55 billion in new taxes—mostly from a proposal that already failed to pass the Democratic-controlled Senate last year. But this was a halfhearted public-relations gesture.
The Senate Democratic proposal also violates Mr. Obama's campaign pledge of a "balanced" deficit reduction that consists of $2.50 in spending cuts for every $1 of new revenue. In December, the president received $600 billion in new taxes, which should now be matched with $1.5 trillion in spending cuts, according to his definition of balance. That hasn't happened.
Mr. Obama is a once-in-a-generation demagogue with a compliant press corps. So in coming weeks, we will be subjected to a slew of presidential photo-ops with those whom he claims will lose jobs because of a 2.3% cut in future federal spending.
The looming sequester is perilous for both political parties. The Feb. 4 Quinnipiac poll reported that only 22% of Americans believe the sequester should take effect. Yet a Feb. 6 Fox poll says 73% believe cutting spending now would help strengthen the economy, and in a Jan. 18 Fox poll, 83% said spending is out of control.
To win public opinion to their side, Republicans will need a proactive strategy that shows the GOP is committed to restrain spending, make cuts as smartly as possible, and keep the government running.
It won't be easy, given the president's intrinsic advantages and bigger megaphone. The Republicans only have the facts on their side. Sometimes that's enough.
A version of this article appeared February 21, 2013, on page A13 in the U.S. edition of The Wall Street Journal, with the headline: A Better Republican Sequester Strategy and online at WSJ.com.