Mythic Beasts

They fear it.

Nearly all cultures recognize at least one fabled, savage creature. These are beasts of mythical status, rooted in folklore, their renown handed down through generations. Societies simultaneously embrace and shudder at these monsters. For their reverence acknowledges the havoc these leviathans may unleash.

Nordic culture (and apparently the spiced rum culture) boasts the sea beast called the Kraken. “Nessie” is said to lurk in the depths of Loch Ness in the Scottish Highlands. Himalayan villagers know the Yeti.

Of course, spotting these behemoths is rare.

The indigenous tribes of Capitol Hill may soon meet the aboriginal beast which slinks amid the balance sheets. It is a fiscal horror – the stuff of legend. Something people have spoken of, but haven’t seen in years.

It is the sequester.

The sequester is a set of mandatory, across-the-board federal spending cuts. And the sequester is set to vent its fury on March 1.

Something wicked this way comes.


Some history.

The sequester is the spawn of the Budget Control Act of August, 2011. President Obama and House Speaker John Boehner (R-OH) found themselves at loggerheads in an effort to forge a “grand bargain” to trim federal spending by $4 trillion and raise the debt ceiling. In the end, Mr. Obama, Boehner and other Congressional leaders compromised with the Budget Control Act (BCA). They agreed to hike the debt limit in exchange for $1.2 trillion in cuts. The law created the “supercommittee,” a team of bipartisan lawmakers from both the House and Senate, to forge those cuts. To prompt success, the BCA threatened a sequester on January 2, 2013. The supercommittee failed. Congress dithered for most of 2012, never forging legislation to euthanize the sequester. On January 1 of this year, the House and Senate voted to delay the sequester until March 1 in an effort to sidestep part of the “fiscal cliff,” the toxic double-whammy of spending cuts via the sequester and tax spikes.

March 1 is just three weeks away. Somewhere, in a dark chamber of Capitol Hill, the sequester stirs. It spreads its wings and emits a blood-curdling bray. Its time is near. And there appears to be very little that the Obama Administration or lawmakers can do to quell the appearance of the sequester.

“I have a feeling we’re going to be forced into sequestration,” said an exasperated House Armed Services Committee Chairman Buck McKeon (R-CA).

Here’s the problem:

On Tuesday, the president took to the microphone in the White House briefing room to plea for an injunction against the sequester.

“If (Congress) can’t get a bigger package done by the time the sequester is scheduled to go into effect, then I believe that they should at least pass a smaller package of spending cuts and tax reforms that would delay the economically damaging effects of the sequester for a few months until Congress finds a way to replace those cuts with a smaller solution,” said Mr. Obama.

Democrats are willing to delay. But Boehner’s having none of it when it comes to Congress not securing true spending cuts.

“Washington has to deal with its spending problem,” fumed Boehner on Wednesday. “I’ve watched them kick this can down the road for the 22 years that I’ve been here. I’ve had enough of this. It’s time to act.”

Even Democrats have grown wary of Washington’s obsession with procrastination.

“Poor can. Poor can. We’re kicking this one metaphorically too much,” bemoaned Rep. Alcee Hastings (D-FL). “If kicking the can down the road was an Olympic sport, the United States would win gold, silver, bronze and aluminum.”

Some Democrats would like to punt for a few months and negotiate a targeted solution to extinguish the sequester, blending cuts with new revenue. On Tuesday, the Congressional Progressive Caucus unveiled a plan to offset the sequester with cuts. It would fill the gaps by ending tax breaks to oil companies and tightening loopholes on corporate jets and yachts. But Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) dismissed efforts like these.

“We certainly won’t get there by wasting time on poll-tested PR gimmicks such as raising taxes on airplanes and energy production,” said McConnell.

That drew the ire of Rep. Jan Schakowsky (D-IL).

“I would say that Mitch McConnell is a bully,” steamed Schakowsky, suggesting that Republicans would rather balance the fiscal issues by altering Medicare, Medicaid and Social Security. “Asking us not to talk about people who have yachts and furs and diamonds? Really?”

But this is far from a Democrats versus Republicans issue.

Under most circumstances, a nemesis as malevolent as the sequester might force an agreement as its arrival creeps closer. One school of thought says the reason there’s no obvious path to avoiding the sequester is because its still early February and not late February. The thinking goes that Congress never does anything until the last nanosecond. Therefore, there’s gobs of time. But there are no behind-the-scenes talks to broker an agreement.

GOP leaders often turned to House Minority Whip Steny Hoyer (D-MD) to deliver Democratic votes in helping pass major bills when Republicans fell short in the 112th Congress. But Hoyer says he hasn’t heard from anyone so far.

“There’s not a back channel,” said Hoyer. “The problem with a back channel is that (Republicans) don’t feel they can deliver on an agreement to deliver the votes.”

That’s the harvest of a unique schism in the Republican ranks.

No other sector of the federal government abhors a harder hit from the sequester than the Pentagon. Historically, Republicans prided themselves as fierce protectors of the military. But some Republicans feel that the only way to score major spending cuts is to stand by the sequester scourge, regardless of its impact on the Pentagon.

“I think Ronald Reagan would turn over in his grave,” said a nearly apoplectic Buck McKeon.

On Wednesday, McKeon was part of a coalition of House and Senate GOP hawks who drafted a bill to replace the sequester through attrition of the federal workforce and pay freezes.

McKeon said defense slashing was “down to the bone” and argued that Republicans who favored the sequester to secure some cuts “were not that far apart” with their colleagues who wanted to at least protect the Pentagon.

Of course, all sinister creatures like the sequester have allies. And Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-SC) did his best to point that out.

“I’m sure Iran is very supportive of sequestration,” said Graham, noting that legion of doom associate al-Qaida would endorse the sequester, too.

However, Graham had a message for his colleagues who might back the sequester simply because it forced deep spending cuts.

“If you feel comfortable cutting like this, then you’ve lost your way,” said Graham.

Still, some Republicans found themselves in the “toldja so” caucus.

Rep. Duncan Hunter Jr. (R-CA) is a former Marine who served in Iraq and Afghanistan. His father, Duncan Hunter Sr., used to chair the panel now led by McKeon. Hunter Jr. was one of 66 House Republicans who voted against the Budget Control Act in 2011.

“Those of us who voted no said this is exactly what would happen. That’s why we voted against it. I’m going to go have a smoke,” said Hunter, hustling out of the Speaker’s Lobby and onto an outdoor Capitol balcony for a few drags.

Anxiety runs high in Congress over the sequester. The beast holds such mythic prestige – yet no one truly wants to see what damage it’s capable of.

No one is certain if legendary terrors like the Kraken, the Loch Ness Monster or Yeti are truly real. Yet the lore endures.

No one is sure if the sequester is real, either.

But the denizens of Capitol Hill will know for certain come March 1.