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Michael Gerson: Washington's serial abdication

BY MICHAEL GERSON Published: February 20, 2013

“I don't know whether to kill myself or to go bowling,” goes the old country song. Official Washington has apparently decided to do both — permitting a self-destructive sequester while heading off on vacation, to bowl or maybe to golf.

For the historical record, all sides bear responsibility for this turn of events. What President Obama now calls a “really bad idea” was generated by his own economic policy team. What Speaker John Boehner now refers to as a “meat ax” passed the House at his urging with 174 Republican votes. All involved would protest that across-the-board cuts were only intended as the unthinkable alternative to a rational plan approved by the so-called supercommittee.

But no one loses money betting against the success of the federal government on budget issues. And many in American politics are now trying to find the sequester's inner beauty, which brings to mind another country classic: “She's looking better every beer.”

Some Democrats see disproportionate defense reductions as a once-in-a-political-lifetime opportunity. For others, it is an opportunity to apply blame to Republicans as TSA screening lines lengthen and meat quality inspectors are furloughed.

Democratic proposals to avoid the sequester are consistent with an aggressive blame-shifting strategy. Replacing a measure that currently consists of 100 percent budget cuts with one that includes 50 percent revenue increases would probably secure zero Republican votes in the Senate. If Boehner were even to publicly consider this approach, he would likely lose his speakership. The Democratic alternative is designed to be unacceptable to nearly every Republican, making it not a plan but a ploy.

On the Republican side, a few of the libertarian/isolationist persuasion are perfectly content with broad budget cuts that also unravel military pre-paredness. Many more in the GOP are resigned to sequestration as the least bad of the options they have been given. These Republicans have, of course, their own alternative: Replace immediate, indiscriminate cuts with gradual, long-term reductions in entitlement spending. But enacting it would require presidential leadership involving political risk, which is not expected.

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