It's Sequestration Week again, and Capitol Hill is abuzz with suspense.
While Hollywood has Oscar season during the winter doldrums, these days Congress has had Sequestration Week, which, much like a Jerry Bruckheimer thriller, features complex protagonists, a compelling narrative and a sinister deadline clock that's about to go off.
What's so bad about sequestration? It requires some $85 billion in cuts across federal agencies this fiscal year, which includes $43 billion in Pentagon spending alone.
This budgetary tactic was meant to be drastic to prod Democrats and Republicans to compromise on a deficit reduction deal. Nearly every federal agency director warns that the cuts could be debilitating, and big shots from K Street to Wall Street have beseeched members of Congress to resolve their fiscal differences.
This is only the second Sequestration Week. The first one happened the last week of December when congressional leaders fought off a "fiscal cliff." As part of that package deal to extend middle-class tax cuts, negotiators opted to push the sequester's deadline to March 1.
But if history repeats itself -- a possibility President Obama and others are anticipating -- Sequestration Week could turn into an annual affair.
Not so long ago, lawmakers spent weeks, sometimes longer, debating how to fund the government. This happened during hearings at Appropriations subcommittees that examined specific agencies' budgets.
Before the advent of Sequestration Week, the congressional appropriations season was the time when the halls of Congress buzzed with energy, as top appropriators in the House or Senate led funding discussions and advanced bills from their committees through the chambers for the president's signature. That is what's known as regular order, in congressional parlance.
Congress has not passed a budget since 2009, relying on a series of continuing resolutions to fund the government ever since. And it's hard to find anyone who thinks Congress can pass a budget this year, either. Beyond addressing the sequestration cuts, Congress and the president must soon agree to a deal to keep the government running beyond March 27.
"The fiscal 2014 budget will be hard enough for appropriators; they don't want to also be debating individual bills for this fiscal year," said Thomas Schatz, president of the watchdog group Citizens Against Government Waste.
Because of all the funding uncertainty, Obama has blown past the statutory deadline for introducing his 2014 budget. He's not expected to do so until mid- or late March. And whatever his budget outlook is, Schatz and others say his proposal would have to take future sequestration scenarios into account.
Congressional Appropriations panels are putting on a brave face by examining fiscal issues this week, as if regular order were back en vogue.
Just a few weeks ago, as the House prepared to debate a $50.5 billion Superstorm Sandy relief bill, Rep. Harold Rogers (R-Ky.), the top appropriator in that chamber, said he hoped to "return the committee's work to the regular order" to ensure "people have the opportunity to impact whatever legislation we're considering."
Rogers and Sen. Barbara Mikulski (D-Md.), his new Senate counterpart, are constantly urging colleagues to give the appropriations process a chance -- at a time when they should be controlling the country's purse strings, a privilege their predecessors enjoyed. But not so; on the day in December when she was handed the Appropriations gavel, Mikulski said restoring regular order was her top priority.
Other appropriators consistently repeat this plea on the upper chamber's floor.
There are various theories explaining the abandonment of regular order and the rise of sequestration. Some observers of Washington say Congress' budgetary cycle started regressing a few years ago, as competing fiscal ideologies took center stage after the 2008 election, fueled in part by the rise of the tea party.
Several experts and political scientists regularly point to tea-party-backed candidates looking to slash spending in a bloated federal system as a reason for the ongoing fiscal dysfunction. After all, various House Republicans with an allegiance to the tea party say they're willing to see the sequester occur -- while Capitol Hill's old guard frantically warns against it.
Wendy Schiller, a political science professor at Brown University, has noticed that many members of Congress have stopped seeing value in spending bills because they "do not get you re-elected" any more. Now, she says, elections often turn on hot-button issues.
Fiscal hard-liners in the GOP, Schiller argues, see more value in addressing infrastructure, education and immigration separately from the appropriations process, because "budget battles only get in the way of those issues."
"The Republicans want to see how much these cuts really affect the economy. It is a gamble because if the public comes to view these cuts as too harmful, Obama could garner more support for new tax increases," Schiller said. "The outrageous element of this budget battle is that members of Congress are playing with people's lives; these are real people with real jobs they may lose, or income that gets cut. All the while, members of Congress exempted themselves from any pay cut from the sequester."
Angela Canterbury of the Project on Government Oversight says a breakdown in the appropriations process creates less obvious problems -- calling into question Congress' ability to tackle a budget under any circumstances.
"I hope Congress hasn't gotten too lazy to do its job," she said. "It's heartening that there is a renewed interest in a normal budget process."
Let the games begin
Nevertheless, like it or not, Sequestration Week II is here.
Starting today, the media grandstanding courtesy of sequestration's prominent players (Obama, Senate and House leaders) will dominate the airwaves, offering spectators yet another view of the political acrimony in Washington. After days of sharp plot twists and a battery of frantic appeals from Wall Street tycoons and the Beltway intelligentsia -- like anti-tax advocate and GOP power broker Grover Norquist calling for more transparency -- a way to avert the sequester might develop by Thursday evening amid a circus of reporters and aides.
It's anybody's guess what will happen.
"From where I sit, it doesn't look good. It seems like any decisions will be punted again this time, until the end of March," said a senior Democratic Senate aide. "The [continuing resolution] extension appears likely to include the lower numbers resulting from sequestration. At this point, the only way out of this mess appears to be some combination of entitlement cuts and/or tax hikes."
"I think we're in for more blame game," said Sarah Binder, political science professor at George Washington University. "Neither party seems happy about the impending sequester; Republicans oppose the defense cuts, as do some Democrats, while Democrats oppose the domestic cuts. Still, there's no congressional majority -- let alone supermajority -- for a deal to replace the cuts."
The Sunlight Foundation's Daniel Schuman doesn't see a punt in the cards: "Not much has changed from past budget fights, and it looks like the sequester is likely to take effect."
Although the concept of sequestration had been around since the 1980s, it was rarely used. Despite signing it into law in August 2011 -- after another deadline that Congress barely met to prevent the government from defaulting on its debt -- Obama and company now say they oppose this legislative trend. "Governing by crisis," the president recently put it.
Ten days ago, Republicans and Democrats left town without compromising on a plan to avert the cuts that would run through September unless Congress acts. Broadly speaking, an agreement hinges on taxes -- Republicans oppose new taxes to hold off the sequester, and Democrats do not.
Fiscal sages Erskine Bowles, President Clinton's chief of staff in the '90s, and former Sen. Alan Simpson (R-Wyo.) are trying to help the administration and congressional leadership move forward, unveiling a proposal last week that would reduce the federal budget deficit by $2.4 trillion over the next decade. At the same time, White House spokesman Jay Carney confirmed the president and House Republican leaders were speaking privately.
Throughout the sequestration saga, the Project on Government Oversight's Canterbury has observed a few contradictions. For example, at the Pentagon, Canterbury notes, on the same day "they threatened layoffs and claimed sequestration would affect readiness," the Defense Department awarded Lockheed Martin Corp. a multibillion-dollar contract for a costly fighter jet weapons program.
Lessons from Sequestration Week I
In the first Sequestration Week in December, throngs of lobbyists jammed committee offices in desperate attempts for face time with lawmakers and their aides. Security details escorted senior White House staff and high-profile negotiators throughout the Capitol Hill campus, while celebrity economists sounded off about the cuts on cable shows.
One of Week I's highlights occurred when House Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) abruptly pulled his "Plan B" compromise legislation from the floor Dec. 20, due to his party's opposition. In an unusual move, the speaker called on the entire GOP caucus to meet in the basement of the House side of the Capitol. Boehner reportedly recited a serenity prayer at the meeting before telling his members to return to Washington after the holidays. Observers began to suspect Boehner had lost control of his party.
En route to that meeting, Rep. Michael Grimm (R-N.Y.) dodged questions from the press by saying he'd just had a root canal. House Budget Chairman Paul Ryan (R-Wis.), the party's most recent vice presidential candidate, pointed to headphones in his ears as reason why he, too, could not take questions.
By New Year's Day, lawmakers had cleared legislation pushing back the sequestration deadline. That ordeal came down to the wire.
So the new normal is that temporary funding measures and perpetual fiscal uncertainties, such as sequestration, appear to be Congress' modus operandi. Congressional leaders are unable to find common ground, and with little outreach from the White House, compromise doesn't seem possible.
It's a different kind of governing.
"You can stand up for your principles, stand up for what you believe in. You get as far as you can go, but then at the end you have to compromise or you can't keep the bridges from falling down. You can't pay off your debts, you can't provide the troops ... you can't do anything until you finally compromise," said former Rep. Mickey Edwards (R-Okla.), a founding member of the Heritage Foundation. "We seem to have lost the ability to do that."