The man in my audience at Ohio University this week was exasperated. Why, he wondered, can’t Washington get its act together?
I can’t say I had a good answer. But it was clear that — in Athens, Ohio, at least — the latest budget cutting debate is going over about as well as that moment when your misbehaving children blame each other for starting it first. This is when you threaten to pull the car over.
I am, of course, talking about the sequester debate — the plan to slice the federal budget across the board that no one wants to own, even though all sides agreed to it.
In the latest poll taken by NBC News and The Wall Street Journal, fully half of the respondents said the sequester debate is making them less confident about the nation’s economic recovery. (I would personally like to meet the 16 percent who say it makes them more confident. That would be a fascinating conversation.)
But it’s not so simple. Most of those surveyed — 52 percent — said the blunt budget axe is a bad idea, yet they could not agree on what they would prefer instead.
There’s more. Thirty-nine percent said the cuts should be even deeper; 37 percent said the opposite. And although 56 percent said the president and Congress should be “working together” to avoid this latest fiscal cliff, fully 46 percent declared it is time to impose even more dramatic cuts if that’s what it takes to reduce the deficit.
If you’re confused by these mixed signals, you can begin to understand the magnitude of the political problem that runs up and down Pennsylvania Avenue.
The truth is, Congress is just as flummoxed about how to proceed as the people they represent. And with no sure guide — or guarantee of political and fiscal Armageddon at hand — government freezes.
As the prospect of political accountability fades, this is what happens:
Artificial deadlines – January gives way to March, which gives way to April.
Fake fights – The Washington Post reports that education secretary Arne Duncan said teachers were already losing their jobs over the budget cuts. But he was able to cite only a single pink slip, and one that had nothing to do with sequestration.
Fingerpointing – One of the more curious outcomes of all this has been the blame game. Republicans said the sequester was the president’s idea, and cited a passage in a Bob Woodward book to prove it. Democrats said everyone’s hands are dirty.
Then in a truly strange twist, Woodward accused a White House official (later identified as economic advisor Gene Sperling) of threatening him in advance of a story he wrote that accused the president of bad faith. Sperling’s words, contained in an email, read: “I know you may not believe this, but as a friend, I think you will regret staking out that claim.”â€¨â€¨
A friend? That hardly seemed threatening. But this back-and-forth managed to consume the otherwise frustrated Washington media for days.
Consequences – Pick your poison. Will flights be less secure, the nation less safe and national parks shut down as thousands of federal employees are furloughed? The administration has suggested all of these.
Is the president’s hair on fire as he seeks to scare Americans into pressuring GOP lawmakers to cave by turning the dispute into a campaign-style debate? That’s what Republicans are saying.
With the underlying problems left unaddressed, it’s unclear who wins these types of fights. But it’s a pretty good bet it won’t be anyone who lives and works in Washington.