Published February 26, 2013
“I don’t think we can maintain the same level of security.”
-- Janet Napolitano, secretary of Homeland Security, briefing reporters about the consequences to automatic reductions to automatic increases in federal spending.
How many million-dollar presidential trips does it take to preserve a billion dollars in spending?
That’s the question as President Obama continues his crusade to block automatic reductions to automatic increases in federal spending that will start sipping dollars out of government accounts on Friday.
Obama is pulling out all the stops to get the upper hand on Republicans in a looming budget fight approaching at the end of next month when the “continuing resolution” funding the government in the absence (three years now) of a federal budget.
Aside from dispatching his cabinet secretaries to warn of the dire consequences of allowing the so-called “sequester” to remain in place for the next decade – unsafe airports, dangerous roads and, on Monday, terrorist attacks – the president himself has been crisscrossing the country to warn of the economic consequences of dialing back the increase.
But the “sequester” as we know it has a practical life span of about three weeks. On March 27 either Congress will have come up with a new spending deal or the government will mostly shut down.
If you want to talk about layoffs and economic disruption, that’s when things get interesting. The government spends about $9 billion a day. The “sequester” would drop that by about $100 million a day. A government shutdown would whack something like $4 billion a day. You do the math.
But Obama’s goal is to prevent Republicans from preserving the lower levels of spending in the funding bill. Both sides agree that arbitrary cuts are bad, so the GOP is working to make them targeted in the “continuing resolution.” Obama doesn’t want that. He wants spending to go up more with higher taxes on top earners offsetting part of the deficit hit.
House Republicans have already twice passed bills that would shift the reductions to less vital programs and Senate Democrats are expected to come up with their own version this week, including a tax bump.
But neither version of a sequester replacement will go anywhere, serving only as fodder for partisan blame gaming. The real battle will be over the funding bill: how much of the reduction is preserved and in what agencies.
In the meantime, the president is looking to run up the score against Republicans.
The economy is already looking shaky as middle-class families suffer a double blow of higher taxes under the president’s tax deal and rising prices at the pump and elsewhere. But any bad economic news between now and a spending deal next month will be laid at the feet of Republicans for refusing a tax hike in order to offset spending cuts. The argument will be that some $15 billion in lower spending this year (the president indicates he wants half cuts half tax hikes) has sent the $16 trillion U.S. economy to the skids.
Now, certainly there’s an argument to be made that the fiscal idiocy of Washington holds some blame for the weakening economy. After all, do people engaged in this kind behavior look like good risks? But that’s a generalized problem related to the dysfunction of the Obama era, not one related to three weeks of a 3 percent federal discretionary spending trim.
Unfortunately for the president, even some of his defenders are starting to point out the logical gaps in his current campaign.
The Washington Post and others are gently reminding the president that the problem facing the federal budget is that “mandatory spending” like funding Medicaid, Social Security and, soon, the president’s new health insurance entitlement program are squeezing out everything else.
Unwilling to dive into the subject of these programs, Obama has been jousting with Republicans about what’s left. But every year, entitlements will gobble up more and more of federal tax receipts. The accounts were plundered for decades by lawmakers unwilling to make unhappy choices and now that Baby Boomers are retiring, it’s a fiscal disaster.
But Obama apparently believes that if he so badly damage Republicans in the fight over the shrinking wedge of discretionary spending he will, post-midterms, either be able to stimulate the economy back to life, thereby reducing the budget squeeze, or undertake entitlement changes with a defeated GOP as his only adversary.
But getting there could be tricky for the president.
Republicans have in the past groused about the cost to taxpayers of financing the first family’s lifestyle and the president’s political ambitions. But crabbing about a family vacation, even if it’s at a Hawaiian villa, often sounds like sour grapes.
Now, though, with Obama screaming about the doom of 3 percent austerity, things look a little different.
Just back from a boys’ golf weekend in Florida, including Tiger Woods, the president will be talking about relative nickels and dimes in federal spending. His wife, fresh from an Aspen ski trip and a star turn on the Oscars telecast, will be out talking about the importance of funding for federal nutrition and military families.
Obama will warn today about what happens when some federal workers loose 1/5th of their pay during the “sequester.” But if he and Vice President Biden volunteered to pony up a day’s pay each that would be a cool $2,500 a week -- $130,000 a year. Surely that’s enough to provide the one extra Homeland Security agent to prevent the next terrorist attack or to lessen the blow to the economy of Newport News from shipbuilding layoffs.
How many food inspectors could be kept from allowing tainted meat into school lunches for the cost of the president’s trip today? How many firefighters could be kept on the job? How many homes could be saved?
Silly questions, perhaps, but silly questions Obama has invited with his approach to the ongoing budget fight.
Obama has excused his tactics on the grounds that the political system and his rivals are unworthy of serious engagement. He is going to seek to push through to midterms in a bid to remake politics and Republicanism into something more worthwhile.
But if he seems cynical or self-serving in the process, his political capital will be gone long before he gets there.
And Now, A Word From Charles
“An example of the cynicism of this campaign is one lobbyist for liberal causes leading 3,000 organizations in opposing the cuts who told the Washington Post the following: ‘The worst case scenario is the sequester hit and nothing really bad happens.’ Think of the cynicism of that. The worst case scenario is that the government makes a small and minuscule cut in spending on the way to beginning of a journey of recovery into fiscal health, and that it doesn't hurt us, we actually come out of it alive.”
-- Charles Krauthammer on “Special Report with Bret Baier.”
Chris Stirewalt is digital politics editor for Fox News, and his POWER PLAY column appears Monday-Friday on FoxNews.com. Catch Chris Live online daily at 11:30amET at http:live.foxnews.com.