By Tim Mak
Republican hawks have been saying for more than a year that Congress must block sequestration from happening, but some conservative organizations have another message for them: Don’t bother.
“Sequestration is not the worst thing,” said Grover Norquist, the influential head of Americans for Tax Reform. “There are better ways to reduce government spending,” he told POLITICO, “but Congress didn’t get there. … We’ve got to get away from this idea that, if the defense sequester got put off, or cut in half, or redirected, then somehow they’ve dodged a bullet and we don’t have to do anything on defense.”
When Congress adjourned last month, several key defense advocates appeared resigned to potentially delaying the onset of sequestration during the year-end lame-duck session, but outside conservative groups are beginning to gel into a coalition to oppose such an agreement, arguing that federal spending must be cut and if this is the only way, so be it.
“Sequestration isn’t ideal, but on the whole, sequestration is fine. … I think it’s been a relatively positive exercise [because] it forces people to address defense spending,” said Andrew Moylan, the outreach director for the conservative R Street organization. “We’ve learned Congress won’t reduce spending unless it is forced.”
“The automatic sequester, while not perfect for a number of reasons, is going to be a lot better than any sort of deal they come up with in the lame duck,” argued David Williams of the Taxpayers Protection Alliance.
As for Norquist, he said that even if Republicans could control all the levers of government, they shouldn’t drop the defense cuts to zero.
“We have to dramatically reduce the cost of defense, whether there is a sequester or not. Maybe the sequester focuses their attention, and to the extent it does, that’s a helpful thing,” he said. “We need to look at defense the way we look at welfare and education — just because somebody calls something by a good name doesn’t mean that every dollar is spent wisely or constructively.”
Williams went even further. “It’s going to be absolutely disappointing to see any sort of deal that doesn’t really cut defense spending,” he said.
Norquist hinted that a formal coalition to oppose a sequester punt was in the works, and that something could be put together within the week.
Moylan said the discussions were under way. “That coalition is building now,” he said.
And Pete Sepp, vice president of the National Taxpayers Union, says that even if there isn’t a traditional alliance dedicated to ensuring sequester takes place, enough activists are on the same page that lawmakers will get the message.
“If there is not a formal coalition in name, there are more than a few conservative organizations concerned that Congress is sending the wrong message on sequestration,” Sepp said. “A more practical solution doesn’t mean leaving defense untouched.”
Whatever form the conservative groups finally take, they say they’d oppose a temporary punt on sequestration just as fervently as they’d try to stop a nullification of defense cuts entirely.
“I think it’s a mistake, because temporary punts become permanent punts,” Norquist said.
Moylan — who acknowledged that he’s “anticipating the puntiest of all punts that have ever been punted” — said a lame duck postponement would lead to “frustration … that we’re continuing to kick the can down the road without dealing with the issues.”
Williams asked what Congress could actually hope to achieve with a delay. “I don’t know what a six-month extension really does,” he said.
So is there support in Congress for the notions that these outside conservative organizations are promoting? It may be too soon to tell, and the mood may change after Election Day. So far only a handful of House members are believed to be fully committed to sequestration.
“The only thing worse than cutting national defense is not having any scheduled cuts at all take place,” said Rep. Jim Jordan, the chairman of the conservative Republican Study Committee, earlier this month.
Norquist said he thought Jordan would only say that if he felt there was strong support for holding back defense hawks anxious to avoid cuts to the Pentagon.
“When Jordan says that, he wouldn’t do that if he didn’t feel a comfort level that he wasn’t speaking just for himself,” Norquist said. “People do not want to weigh in between now and the election.”
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