The decision by Senate Democrats last week to restore funding to the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA)—money that was cut when the “sequester” took effect in March and led to flight delays that angered a wide swath of Americans—was a clear loss for Democrats in the ongoing budget wars. Rather than cave and reverse the cuts, Democrats should have used the public discontent as leverage to pressure Republicans. They squandered this opportunity.
Unlike cuts from sequestration that affect the poor or will be felt down the line—cuts to Head Start or infrastructure, for example—the FAA cuts were both highly visible and affected wealthier and middle-class voters whom members of Congress tend to listen to. Sequestration was designed to slash programs important to both Democrats (broadly speaking, social programs) and Republicans (mainly, defense spending). By cutting bluntly, sequestration would force cuts to high and low-priority programs even if everyone agreed on which were more important. The whole idea was that both parties would have an incentive to avoid those cuts, and to negotiate a “grand bargain” to cut the deficit.
Republicans, however, unexpectedly decided they could live with cuts to defense spending and allowed sequestration to take effect. This threw Democrats for a loop; they had banked on Republicans coming to the bargaining table to avoid sequestration. There remained, however, the possibility that Republicans would still retreat when other cuts disrupted the normal rhythms of life and business.
But the GOP once again changed its strategy. Rather than accept broad, across-the-board cuts mandated by sequestration, they have been pushing for a system in which government agencies have the responsibility to transfer cuts from one area of spending to another—in other words, we have the same amount of spending cuts, but the executive branch (instead of Congress) will have to decide where the specific cuts would happen. This “flexibility” for agencies, however, simply means that wherever they decide to cut, Republicans can claim that’s the wrong place—and blame Barack Obama. After all, every specific spending cut means that someone is losing out, and those budget losers are going to look for someone to blame.
The polling makes clear that spending cuts are popular in the abstract, but quite unpopular for almost every program the federal government administers, from air-traffic control to student loans to veteran’s benefits to pretty much everything except foreign aid. So Republicans want the credit for general spending cuts, while passing the buck—and the blame—for the specific programs affected. Indeed, Republicans suggested agency flexibility for all sequestration cuts back before the cuts began taking effect in March. At that point, Democrats turned them down.
However, when the strategy was tested again with FAA cuts that caused flight delays, Republicans got what they wanted. Senate Democrats allowed the FAA to transfer money from other accounts and end the “crisis” of flight delays without getting anything in return.
Consequently, Democrats have found themselves continuing to argue for spending cuts along with higher taxes. That may make some deficit-obsessed editorial boards happy (although it doesn’t ever seem to work out that way), but it’s neither good politics nor, most liberals would argue, good policy. Raising taxes to offset cuts and balance the budget is not the only other possible option. If Republicans don't like sequestration's irrational cuts, and don't want to recommend a different set of cuts, and absolutely refuse to consider revenues ... then why not just fewer cuts, along with larger deficits? That’s been what’s happened since at least the Reagan administration.
Here’s what Democrats should have done, and should be ready to do next time that a Republicans object to a specific program cut—and no question about it, there will be a next time given that now any organized group realizes it stands a good chance of escaping sequestration if it lobbies hard enough. Democrats should collect all of their sequestration complaints: Head Start, Meals on Wheels, and on and on. Next time Republicans squawk about a terrible spending cut (maybe to defense contracts?), Senate Democrats should immediately rush a bill to the floor to satisfy the Republican complaint along with a similar-sized Democratic objection. And they should satisfy those complaints, but not by giving agencies “flexibility” to take money away from some other, unspecified, program. No, they should flat-out cancel the cuts. Not only will this drive home the point that we don’t want sequestration’s broad cuts, it will show that even Republicans don’t want to put their money where their mouth is when it concerns programs.
So, for example, suppose Republicans object to NASA’s decision to save money by using the Russian space agency to get astronauts to the space station for the next few years instead of contracting with SpaceX. Democrats should draft a bill restoring enough funding to NASA to allow them to do what Republicans want, along with restored money for, say, Meals on Wheels. If Republicans want to complain that they’re holding the private space industry hostage to the Democrats’ demand, let them complain—this is, after all, what spending cuts mean.
On air-traffic control, Democrats missed their chance. But another will come. I understand why liberals want to raise revenues from the rich, but I don't understand why they act as if they prefer that to funding programs they believe in. And at any rate, as a negotiating strategy, it’s a disaster. Even if the White House and some Democrats in Congress really believe that a grand bargain is the best long-term eventual outcome, if they want to start winning some of these skirmishes they need a new ask, and they need to get ready for it right now. Match every Republican-restored spending request with a same-sized Democratic restored spending request, with no offsets unless Republicans name specific offsets. That’s territory that Democrats should be happy to fight over.