Delay: Republicans Can Let the Sequester Happen—And Undo the Defense Cuts Later!


Have Republicans learned to love the sequester? All signs indicate that while plenty of House GOP members don't particularly like the way the automatic spending reductions hit the defense budget and other discretionary spending programs, they're ready to go through with it when the reductions kick in on March 1. At least for now, that is.

In reporting on how Republicans had come to accept the sequester, National Review's Robert Costa gets former House Majority Leader Tom Delay to suggest that there may be a longer game afoot:

Tom DeLay, the former House majority leader, who was meeting with a few of his former colleagues on Wednesday at the Capitol, says Boehner's playbook is "sharp," since defense spending "can always be replaced during the appropriations process, after the cuts are put into place."

"You can always put money back in for defense," DeLay says. "I think Boehner is going to stick with the sequester since the cuts are already happening, and if he needs to do something later, he can. I don't think the president realizes how Boehner has the upper hand."

So they'll let the sequester take effect now. And then they'll undo all or some of the defense spending reductions — which account for half of the $1.2 trillion in sequester cuts — sometime later. 

Delay is, of course, very much a former legislator at this point, having been convicted of money laundering, and so is not speaking officially for the House GOP. But this scenario isn't all that far-fetched. The biggest potential problem with using the sequester to cut spending has never been the design. It's been that Congress won't stick to its spending reductions as they roll out over the next decade. That's what happened with Gramm-Rudman-Hollings, a sequester-like budget mechanism intended to reduce the deficit back in the 1980s.

I've written about GRH before, but here are the basics: In 1985, Congress faced mounting debt and wanted to do something about it. In response, members of Congress passed a law that came to be known as Gramm-Rudman-Hollings (GRH), after Sens. Philip Gramm (R-Texas), Warren Rudman (R-N.H.), and Ernest Holling (D-S.C.), the three primary authors. The law used a trigger system, setting target figures for deficit reduction. If Congress failed to meet its deficit targets, then an automatic process known as sequestration—across-the-board spending reductions much like what we're debating now—was supposed to occur.

GRH was challenged in court, and in 1986 its sequestration mechanism was ruled unconstitutional because it granted budget authority to the Comptroller General, an officer of Congress, who was found to have been illegally granted executive powers. In 1987, Congress revisited the law, passing an updated version designed to avoid legal challenge. This one didn't face a court challenge. But it didn't work very well either. In 1986, the law's deficit target was $172 billion. The actual deficit was slightly over $221 billion. In 1987, the deficit came within a horse shoe's distance of hitting its $144 billion deficit target, clocking in at $149.8 billion. But by 1988, the gap had widened once again: The initial target was set at $108 billion, but the actual deficit hit $155 billion. 

In the end, the plan was a failure. According to Robert Lee, Philip Joyce, and Ronald Johnson's primer on public budgeting systems, by the end of the decade,  Gramm-Rudman-Hollings did not "appreciably affected the overall budget deficit situation." In 1990, Congress ditched the GRH sequester system. 

As far I can tell, GRH wasn't passed with the intention of undermining it later. But if Delay is correct, and I fear he might be onto something, the sequester will go into effect, only to be undone through some later mechanism. Which is to say that Republicans may be openly embracing the sequester — while quietly planning to stab it in the back.