Here are a few points on the sequester I haven’t seen elsewhere or I think deserve special emphasis.

Sequester replacement was mostly for show

As best I can tell there were no negotiations across the partisan aisle on how to replace the sequester. The President did some campaigning outside of Washington. Even if he had expected Congressional Republicans to fold to this pressure, his team was not doing the staff-level work needed to actually make legislation happen. And while leaders of both parties claim to hate the sequester, neither side hated it enough to be willing to even begin negotiations over how to pay for its replacement. The competing sequester replacement plans and the rhetoric on both sides look like they were mostly for public positioning and Member management within the Congressional caucuses rather than serious attempts to change the law.

Why the sequester will hold

There are two distinct legislative coalitions that in theory could unwind the sequester. In both hypothetical coalitions cuts in both defense and non-defense discretionary spending would be unwound.

One would be a center-left alliance formed by pro-defense spending Republicans agreeing to raise taxes and cut farm subsidies. These Republicans would be deciding that avoiding defense spending cuts is more important than preventing additional tax increases.

The other would be a center-right alliance formed by Democratic appropriators agreeing to drop their party’s tax increase demands and pay for higher discretionary spending offset entirely by entitlement spending cuts. These Democrats would be deciding that they care more about spending money than about extracting more from the rich.

These coalitions will never form as long as the sequester issue is being controlled by the President and the four Congressional leaders. Each of these five is working principally to hold his or her party intact, and each has so far succeeded. A coalition to replace the sequester would have a chance only if the issue were being handled below the leadership level, most likely in the House and Senate Appropriations Committees. In these committees everyone’s priority is to increase discretionary spending and both sides would be more likely to show flexibility on offsets. Since the issue remains squarely in the hands of the President and the party leaders I expect the sequester will hold indefinitely.

In addition, the optical damage of the cuts affects only the next seven months. If the continuing resolution extends post-sequester spending levels, then the implementation of next year’s sequester won’t show up as a “spending cut,” but instead as a slight increase (say, +2% for inflation) from this year’s spending levels. To the extent the political and press blowback from cutting spending arises from the optics of a decline in spending, that decline takes effect only this year. After that it’s built into the baseline, at least in a political sense.

Watch the CR for spending flexibility and maybe a little money

I instead expect the appropriators to instead pursue more modest versions of the same goals through quietly shaping the upcoming Continuing Resolution. The appropriators appear poised to give targeted flexibility to the Administration in a few limited areas where they agree that the sequester will impose too much pain, and they might even try to shift a few billion dollars around here and there. The Administration claims they are still opposed to funding flexibility. I think they’re irrelevant on this point and the Appropriators will now quietly exert process and legislative language control to minimize the policy harm from the sequester. And the more flexibility the appropriators provide, and the more they shift funds (within what I hope is a fixed post-sequester topline) to address sequester-driven policy harm, the more likely the sequester will be sustained over time.

The White House’s management challenge

While Team Obama now says the sky will now drop gradually rather than fall suddenly, they are sticking to their line that the pain from these spending cuts will be intolerable and will/should force Congress to increase taxes and discretionary spending.

With this argument they create a management challenge for themselves. They need the harm from these cuts to be severe and visible. The more harm is done and felt, the more likely that Republicans will relent to the president’s position (or so goes this logic). More policy harm creates more legislative pressure.

But the TSA manager at O’Hare or Logan or LaGuardia wants to minimize policy harm in his area, not maximize it. Sure he’d like more funding, but from his perspective there’s little he can do to influence Congress on something as big as the sequester. And since he will personally take the public heat for long security lines in his airport, his goal is to make do as best he can and minimize the harm done by the cuts.

The same is true for every program manager throughout the government. Each is judged on how well her program meets its goals given the funding available. If we simply assume that these managers will try to do their jobs as effectively as possible, both for noble policy reasons and for personal reputational reasons, then they will be working at odds with the President’s strategic goal of maximizing visible harm to undo the sequester. They will be trying to minimize the damage done while the President wants the opposite.

Playing a longer game?

It is possible the President’s primary goal is not to replace the sequester with offsets that he prefers. Sure he’d prefer that policy outcome, but it’s hard to believe that he and his team were so clueless that they actually thought his recent barnstorming would cause Republicans to fold and agree to raise taxes. Again.

Charles Krauthammer has suggested the President is instead playing a longer game, that his strategic goal is instead to win Democratic majorities in 2014 rather than to win a tactical victory by extracting a few tens of billions of dollars now from the House Republican majority. If Mr. Krauthammer is right, then the goal of barnstorming is to further damage the Republican brand rather than to enact legislation in the short run.

The other obvious benefit to the barnstorming is that without a deal to replace the sequester, the President now has a new target for blame-shifting in his macroeconomic message.

  • Old message: All economic bad news is George W. Bush’s fault, all good news is because my policies are working.
  • New message: All economic bad news is Congressional Republicans’ fault, while all good news is because my policies are working.

Both these “long game” explanations are dispiriting. That doesn’t mean they’re wrong.