Spending cut politics: Déjà vu all over again

Story highlights

  • The impasse over spending cuts is the latest in a series of Washington showdowns
  • Mark your calendar! The next political showdown is March 27
  • Democrats and Republicans trade blame over who is at fault
  • Analyst: Americans want reduced spending without touching individual programs
It's every cliché about repeated experience you can think of -- the myth of Sisyphus, déjà vu all over again, Groundhog Day.
The forced government spending cuts that take effect Friday are just a prelude for more political showdowns in coming months.
First will be the March 27 deadline for Congress to approve government funding for the rest of the current fiscal year, which ends on September 30.
Without such authorization through what legislators call a continuing resolution, the government will partially shut down.
So like Sisyphus and his stone or Phil Connors in Punxsutawney, the nation will again face the same political drama over spending and taxes less than four weeks from now.
President Barack Obama and House Speaker John Boehner made clear Friday that the coming deadline on the continuing resolution will be the next standoff.
"The president and leaders agreed legislation should be enacted this month to prevent a government shutdown while we continue to work on a solution to replace the" forced spending cuts, said a statement by Boehner's office.
Obama indicated he would sign a funding bill to avert a possible government shutdown on March 27 as long as it adhered to past funding agreements, even if that included the forced spending cuts.
"There's no reason why we should have another crisis by shutting the government down in addition to these arbitrary spending cuts," he said.
At issue is the same ideological divide over the size and role of government that dominated Obama's first term and appears certain to also dominate the second one.
Both sides acknowledge the need to reduce the nation's chronic federal deficits and debt, but they differ on the severity of the steps needed and how to make it happen.
Republicans led by Boehner seek to shrink government to reduce overall spending, especially on costly entitlement programs such as Medicare and Medicaid that are main drivers of the deficits.
They contend that failing to bring down spending threatens the nation's economic stability and security in the near-term and especially in coming decades.
Democrats led by Obama want to preserve the social safety net of entitlements and insist on including more tax revenue --especially from the wealthiest Americans -- in any deficit reduction package.
Obama made such an approach a central campaign theme in winning re-election last year, arguing Republican proposals that focus on spending cuts alone would put most of the burden of deficit reduction on the middle class, the elderly, the poor and disabled.
A last-gasp effort to avoid the forced spending cuts taking effect Friday amounted to theatrical staging, with Obama and congressional leaders meeting for about 45 minutes at the White House after both sides insisted they wouldn't budge.
"There will be no last-minute, back-room deal and absolutely no agreement to increase taxes," Senate Republican leader Mitch McConnell said in a statement issued before the talks.
For his part, Obama lamented that "none of this is necessary."
"It's happening because of a choice that Republicans in Congress have made," he said. "They've allowed these cuts to happen because they refuse to budge on closing a single wasteful loophole to help reduce the deficit."
Breaking the cycle of partisan posturing will require the White House and Congress to open themselves to substantive negotiations, Republican Rep. Randy Forbes of Virginia told CNN on Friday.
"There's just way too much bravado up here, too much from White House, too much from Congress. We've got to calm people down and have them starting talking to each other, instead of at each other."
Polls show the public is about as politically divided as its leaders. While most Americans support a deficit reduction plan that includes spending cuts and increased revenue, as well as entitlement reforms, there is little agreement on the formula for such a package.
In addition, a Pew Research Center poll last week showed that a majority of respondents opposed cuts to 18 of 19 specific areas, sending the message that people don't want deficit reduction to hurt them personally.
"The American people want the federal government to reduce spending without touching actual programs," wrote William Galston a senior fellow in governance studies at the Brookings Institution, in a blog post this week. "Is it any wonder that long-term budget cuts have stalled and that even short-term fiscal issues tie Congress up in knots?"
Part of the blame rests with political leaders in Congress and the White House failing to level with the American public about what it will take to "wrestle the federal budget back on a sustainable trajectory for the long term," Galston wrote.
"It's hard to avoid the conclusion that most of today's politicians regard the people with a mixture of fear and contempt: They can't stand the truth, and they'll punish any elected official who utters it," he continued. "When politicians come to believe this, or act as though they do, effective democratic self-government becomes impossible, and temporizing and pandering fill the vacuum the absence of serious governance creates."
Such a vacuum exists now, judging by the repeated brinksmanship over tax and spending issues that caused a downgrade in the U.S. credit rating and threatened economic recovery.
A series of showdowns has occurred since a conservative wave helped Republicans regain control of the House in the 2010 mid-term elections. Every deadline -- for funding the government, raising the nation's borrowing limit or addressing expiring taxes or tax cuts -- led to protracted wrangling and last-minute agreements.
William Gale, co-directorf of the Urban-Brookings Tax Policy Center and University of California-Berkeley Professor Alan Auerbach argued in a paper published Thursday that much more deficit reduction was needed than enacted in agreements so far.
"The changes needed relate much more to medium- and long-term deficits, rather than the short-term deficits, which to a considerable extent still reflect the weakness of the economy," they wrote. "Moreover, cuts in discretionary spending alone will not suffice if substantial progress is to be made; changes to entitlement spending and to tax revenues will be needed to close the gap."
One of those past agreements -- to increase the debt ceiling in 2011-- included the forced spending cuts taking effect Friday. Known in Washington jargon as sequestration, the cuts were intended to be so unpopular that both sides would be motivated to negotiate a broader deficit reduction package rather than let them get implemented.
However, the charged political environment of an election year in 2012 prevented such an agreement, leading to the mandatory cuts to defense and other discretionary spending -- but not entitlement programs -- set to begin Friday.
The next deadline is for the continuing resolution. Because that measure covers government spending for the rest of the fiscal year, it could address the forced spending cuts to resolve both problems.
However, Obama indicated Friday that the comprehensive agreement he seeks "may take a couple of weeks, it may take a couple of months, but I'm just going to keep on pushing on it."
Or as absurdist philosopher Albert Camus wrote of the endless task faced by Sisyphus: "The struggle itself toward the heights is enough to fill a man's heart."
"One must imagine Sisyphus happy," Camus concluded.