M.D. Harmon: Sequestration and the art of hostage-taking


When Halloween is over, the masks come off, at least for trick-or-treaters.

Thus, it’s also a good time to note that the masks have come off a substantial number of people on the left who want to restore the tax rates that were in place before they were cut under President George W. Bush.

In addition, they don’t want to do anything about the “sequester” of federal programs, including huge defense cuts amounting to hundreds of billions of dollars over the next few years, that will go into place unless they are blocked by lawmakers.

This highly unpleasant eventuality, due to happen Jan. 1 unless Congress and President Obama act to forestall it, has been variously known as “Taxmageddon” or, alternately, “the pending fiscal cliff.”

But under the headline, “Many say jumping is best way to go,” Suzy Khimm of The Washington Post informed us on Oct. 27 that “a contingent of policy wonks and Democrats insist that letting the Dec. 31 deadline come and go—thus triggering automatic tax increases and spending cuts—could produce the best outcome.”

Clearly, this is a highly idiosyncratic definition of the word “best,” but Americans had better be aware that they are the targets of this campaign.

Letting the authorization expire for what has been called “the Bush tax cuts” (actually, they were reaffirmed by President Obama and Democrats and are better described as “current tax rates”) will raise federal taxes by about $500 billion.

If accompanied, as seems highly likely, by a projected hike in payroll taxes of 2 percent of income (from 4.2 percent to the previous rate of 6.2 percent), the bill will soar for those who do not pay much in income tax as well.

In other words, these are equal-opportunity tax hikes, aimed at Americans all across the board. While a new Congress can restore lower rates next year, some fear that letting the new rates take effect, even temporarily, could shove the economy over into another recession, the second in just four years.

Meanwhile, the sequester threat ought to remind us of the scene in Mel Brooks’ “Blazing Saddles” where the black sheriff, Bart, threatened by a angry mob, pulls out his pistol and puts it to his own head, saying that if anybody moves, he’ll shoot.

“Hold it, men,” someone yells. “He’s not bluffing!” Another adds, “Listen to him, men. He’s just crazy enough to do it!”

So, holding himself hostage, Bart escapes.

The sequester was intended by those who created it—including President Obama, who, despite his denials in the most recent debate, insisted that it include defense cuts that amount to half the measure’s $1.2 trillion total cuts over the decade beginning in 2013—to be exactly that sort of hostage-taking.

They decided to point a gun at the head of their own country, with the idea that it was so extreme that no one would agree to it.

But conservatives who helped pass it apparently failed to see that liberals would view the military-heavy weighting of the cuts as highly desirable, and thus support the sequester for that reason.

To be sure, government needs to be reduced, especially (but not only) at the federal level.

However, the sequester wields a meat-ax when intelligent, purposeful dissection is needed. And we also know that for leftists, cutting our nation’s defenses in one huge chunk, even at a time of serious threats at many levels, from terrorism to Iranian nukes to Chinese expansionism, isn’t a bug; it’s a feature.

And conservatives also failed to see that they were playing into the hands of a president who would cut almost anything else to be able to play what he considered a campaign ace: boosting taxes on “the rich” to satisfy his left-wing supporters, something for which he was willing to hold the rest of the country hostage.

Now, with the barrel of the liberals’ six-gun pressed against our temples, we are being dragged toward their hideout, with just one hope of escape—that voters will give Republicans control of Congress and the White House in next Tuesday’s election.

Anything less, and the trigger gets pulled.

To be clear, we shouldn’t be naive enough to think that a willingness to go “diving off the fiscal cliff,” as Khimm put it, is a minority view among the left.

As she notes, “Publicly, most Democrats haven’t gone as far as Murray (Sen. Patty Murray of Washington state, who favored letting the tax cuts expire and the sequester take effect), continuing to stress that avoiding the fiscal cliff is their priority.”

But that’s not what they say among themselves.

“Privately,” Khimm adds, “some acknowledge that they’d be willing to jump if Republicans refuse to let Bush-era tax cuts on the wealthy expire.”

Of course, “the wealthy” category includes thousands of small-business owners who have millions of employees, but that doesn’t seem to matter to the envious liberals, who think anyone making over $250,000 is a plutocrat.

One give-away paragraph in Khimm’s account quoted economist Chad Stone of the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, a liberal think tank whose mission statement says it evaluates fiscal and social policies that affect low-income people, which is fine—but this group’s listed goals make it clear that lowering taxes and cutting programs are not on its agenda.

Khimm said that Stone criticized efforts to resolve the tax and sequester issues before they took effect, because—here’s the key—”making a hasty deal could involve undesirable tradeoffs, for instance changes to Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid that these advocates oppose.”

In other words, actually reforming these huge and unaffordable social programs, whose obligations outweigh their resources by tens of trillions of dollars, is something the left has no interest in discussing.

And, Khimm adds, the leftists “also warn against a short-term fix of ‘extending everything for a little while before revisiting the issue later,’ as Stone put it. Doing so would forgo an opportunity to force Congress into making tough choices, they say, encouraging them to keep an undesirable status quo on taxes.”

See the equation? Low taxes = undesirable status quo. So, what kind of math would the CBPP and other leftists favor? Higher taxes = progressive paradise, of course.

The real issue is that it’s not just some partisan think tank rangers, along with various political operatives and officeholders, who are doubling down on samurai budgeting and pummeling the successful.

It is obvious that the president of the United States also believes that this is the way to move “Forward,” as his new campaign placards exhort us.

Indeed, President Obama is likely “leading from behind” on this effort, betting his re-election chances that, should he win another four years, he can hike taxes and slide out from under his burgeoning deficits with the sequester, which doesn’t threaten much that he really values (Social Security and Medicaid are exempt, for example, as is Obamacare).

So where’s the route that lets our elected officials fix things in a lasting way? We need real reforms that don’t leave us exposed to our enemies and still put us on the path of reducing the deficit and dealing with entitlements in a responsible manner.

To ask the question is to answer it. It’s not enough to hope for change, we actually have to vote for it.

And this time it’s for real.

M.D. Harmon, a retired journalist and military officer, is a free-lance writer and speaker. He can be contacted at:mdharmoncol@yahoo.com.


  1. The Simpson-Bowles Plan proposes to reduce the debt and deficits by cuts + tax increases. David Stockman advocates the same, but they don’t mean on the “rich” only. CBO figures have shown that the proposed increases on the rich will have a negligible effect. The real issue is this, shall we continue to expand government or not.


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