StanCollender'sCapitalGainsandGames Washington, Wall Street and Everything in Between

Why The Sequester Really Happened (Hint It Has Nothing To Do With The Deficit)

03 Mar 2013
Posted by Stan Collender

How did the sequester happen? How is it possible that what supposedly was the worst possible way to cut the deficit somehow became what actually happened?

Over the weekend Ezra Klein, in a much retweeted blog post that was the talk of large parts of the political blogosphere, said that the GOP was never going to make a deal to avoid the sequester if it included a tax increase. Nothing...not the prospect of reductions in military spending, not the projected reduction in GDP, not the estimated increase in unemployment, not the lost possibility of a bigger deal to reduce the deficit and not the overwhelming likelihood that Republicans would get blamed for all of this...made any difference.

The GOP's position seems to defy all economic and political commonsense until you realize how much GOP politics have changed in recent years.

The big fear among Republicans -- especially those in the House -- isn't that a Democrat will beat them in the 2014 election. The big GOP concern these days is about being "primaried," the new verb that tells you all you need to know about what's happening in Washington. The redrawing of congressional districts following the 2010 census made sure that there are few multi-party competitive races. If there's a big fight for a House seat, it's far more likely to be in a primary. Once the nomination is over, the seat effectively is won and, except in waves when there is a larger-than-usual change, the general election is more of a formality.

That makes it especially important for someone running for a House seat to pay intense attention to those who vote in her or his primary.Their votes are more important in the almost always lower-turnout primary than in the higher turnout general election. And, most significantly, they are not necessarily (I'm being kind here) representative of the district as a whole.

This is particularly important to House Republicans because they are in the majority and desperately want to keep it. In fact, since the 2012 election, I've been told repeatedly by a number of incumbent GOP representatives that maintaining control of the House rather than winning the White House or gaining a majority in the Senate is their top priority.

That gives enormous power to those who vote in GOP primaries. The issue that's almost singularly important to them is taxes.

That means that anything that even hints at let alone actually includes a tax increase an absolute political mistake for Republicans. This is true even if it prevents a bigger deficit reduction deal from happening, does overall harm to the U.S. economy, cuts the Pentagon or prevents a Republican takeover of the Senate in 2014.

One of the most interesting aspects of this situation is that the Democratic political strategy is just the opposite. The only way for the Dems to win control of the House is to broaden their appeal to the wider audience that votes in the general election and get them to turnout on election day. That means  that, rather than doing anything and everything possible to avoid it, letting the sequester happen and then making sure  Republicans are blamed for the pain and disgust is the better way to go.

And that explains all you need to know about why there was no deal to prevent the sequester last Friday. It was never about cutting spending or reducing the deficit; the fight always was about keeping or winning control of the House of Representatives in the next election. It wasn't about dueling economic philosophies and it definitely wasn't about the deficit.

Instead, Republicans and Democrats were playing to completely different audiences. That made a deal to avoid a sequester far less likely than most of us ever wanted to admit.


This is cold comfort to the

This is cold comfort to the patients with horrible diseases wondering why the NIH medical research budget has been savaged by these sequester cuts, and to the scientists in medical research labs like mine who are going to be laid off from their jobs soon if the sequester is not reversed.


We just got our best-/worst-case scenarios this morning. Depending on what action the NIH (and NSF) actually take, best case is a salary cut/hiring freeze. Worst is layoffs, which I am willing to bet will come disproportionately from the ranks of non-administrators...

"savaged" ??

In constant dollars, NIH now receives 50% more each year than it did in the mid 1990s. Constant dollars of course means factoring inflation - so now that a 5% reduction is planned, this amounts to savagery?

It's no wonder we can't slow spending. Anything but always more-more-more releases the Kraken.

There may be a non-sequitur

There may be a non-sequitur in the analysis. Yes, it's important to individual House Republicans to appeal to primary voters. Yes, both parties may see control of the House and the most important political contest right now. However, the one does not lead to the other in the causal chain of events leading to sequestration. The transition from your 5th to your 6th paragraph doesn't lead to the conclusion of the 7th. Desperation to hold the House has nothing to do with the power of primary voters to dictate tax policy. The drive to hold the House is intensified because the power of extremists in primary voting puts swing districts at risk. The shift in focus to winning primaries has polarized House politics. The focus on winning control of the House should militate toward compromise.

I think your analysis does identify the ultimate cause of of the failure to avoid sequestration, but with a logical detour along the way.

It's not a non sequitur

I think what didn't get said in this piece is that being "primaried" may lead to the nomination of an extremist, i.e. a Tea Partier, who will go on to lose in the general election. If this happens often enough, the GOP loses the House.

Control of House. Tax number one issue.

Ask old people who lived through the depression or read the papers from the time if taxes were on anyones mind. If you fail everyone for the few the few can lose it all too. Perhaps another depression far worse than the last is what we need to bring everyone back to reality.

Strange GOP Logic

I can see GOP house members worried about being “primaried” out of self-interest but thinking this this will help keep control of the house seems to be a tactical error. If a district is safely super conservative, a candidate couldn’t be too right wing to win a general election. Conversely, "safe" GOP seats in more moderate parts of the country (ie, West Coast, North East) might be threatened in a general election if they get painted as being overly extreme. 85 GOP house members felt compelled to vote for the January tax increase. Some of those must feel threatened if these showdowns continue.

Never-Ending Campaign Season

Both sides are in the wrong. They are too fixated on their personal agendas rather than trying to effectively govern our nation. The Republican Representatives will not accept compromise in fear of retaliation from their political party, and the Democrats seem to be perfectly content with playing the blame game against the GOP. The partisan warfare is cancerous and the livelihood of thousands of Americans is the collateral damage in the two major parties struggle for power.

What do you suggest the

What do you suggest the Democrats do? The blame game is their only option.

Steven Capps: "Both sides are

Steven Capps:
"Both sides are in the wrong. They are too fixated on their personal agendas rather than trying to effectively govern our nation."

They do what politicians everywhere must do, protecting their own skin. If that causes actions that are bad for the whole, then there is a structural defect in the political system. Don't blame it on personal shortcomings; politicians are only human, too.

I agree with previous

I agree with previous commenters that this posting is a non-sequitur. Is it the fear of being primaried or the wish to keep the House majority that drives Republican politics?

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