WASHINGTON, D.C. — The fallout from federal spending cuts over the coming weeks might alter the nation’s political landscape for years to come.
Already, a decade of budget deficits run up in war and economic crisis has saddled the government with a $16 trillion debt, a bill that will force the country to come to grips with how much government it wants and how much it wants to pay for it at the very time the aging baby boomers put new strains on the budget through such vast programs as Medicare and Social Security.
Now the government is about to start cutting spending in some programs, offering a first look at how the American people will react.
If people feel the sting of the so-called sequestration with fewer teachers at their schools, more time in airport security lines and smaller checks for those without jobs, they might rise up and send a clear signal that the country really wants to keep all of the government it now gets and perhaps feed a demand that the government charge more in the form of higher taxes.
If, however, the majority of Americans don’t feel any pain from the cuts, if they either don’t see an impact or don’t empathize with federal employees enduring unpaid furloughs, they’d likely invite more moves to cut spending. That would bolster the Republicans.
Either way, it’s a high-stakes gamble for the two major parties, with the winner likely to dominate the debate and perhaps elections for years.
So far, Americans aren’t paying much attention. Just one in four were following the news closely last week, according to the Pew Research Center.
That amplifies the urgency for the parties to try to define the budget cuts on their terms. It also explains why President Barack Obama spent the last two weeks pushing the idea that the reductions are cruel and thoughtless. He needs people aware and angry to bolster his argument for more taxes and fewer spending cuts.
The $44 billion that’s being trimmed over the next seven months is a less than ideal test for either party.
Created by the Obama administration and Congress in 2011, sequestration was meant to be painful. They thought that the threat of automatic cuts would force them to find a better alternative. It didn’t.
Democrats insist on adding tax increases and leaving more spending untouched. Republicans want the same amount of spending cut, but would prefer it in different places.
Led by Obama, Democrats are betting that the American people will hate the reductions and demand tax increases instead.
The danger is that they might have overplayed their hand. First, some of the most extensive and popular federal programs, such as Social Security, won’t be trimmed. Second, the cuts will take effect slowly and might not be felt in time to affect the debate over extending government funding past March 27 or whether to raise the government’s debt ceiling past May 19.
There might be an eventual payoff, though. As the sting of cutting spending intensifies, Democrats think, so will their electoral prospects.
“This is going to be a slope, not a cliff,” said Sen. Benjamin Cardin, D-Md.
Democrats also will point to the alternative spending cuts that the Republican-run House of Representatives passed twice last year. No Democrats voted for the plans, which would have made deep cuts in some of Obama’s key initiatives, such as a fund to implement the 2010 health care law, as well as housing and food stamp programs.
Democrats are aware that their strategy has perils, chiefly that the reality won’t match the hype. “People will see long lines at airports, but they always think the lines are long,” said Rep. Bill Pascrell, D-N.J.
Republicans, who didn’t want these exact cuts, now prefer to keep them rather than leave spending levels intact or raise taxes in addition to the increases in Social Security taxes and income taxes enacted in January. They’re gambling that the impact is being overblown.
“We can’t absorb that kind of impact in our spending levels?” said Rep. Tom Reed, R-N.Y., a favorite of the conservative tea party movement.
“People will not buy into this idea there will be dire consequences.”
Though Obama’s current proposal involves eliminating corporate loopholes and subsidies, Republicans tar his plan as big government’s latest reach into the pockets of the embattled taxpayer. “We’ve already started to feel, in our states, the impact of consumers having less money in their hands because of the payroll tax having gone up,” said Republican Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker, who was in town for a governors’ meeting.
Republicans also know that their tactics might backfire.
Pew found last month that 62 percent saw the party as out of touch with the American people, and 52 percent branded it as too extreme. Democrats had far lower numbers. And Obama has the bully pulpit: No Republican is as recognized, and no one Republican speaks for the party the way Obama speaks for the Democrats.
Somehow, Virginia Gov. Bob McDonnell said, “we have to find ways to cut spending, but do it in a way that’s seen as reasonable.”
The parties do agree on one point: Both sides face the risk that their stubbornness will further alienate already-weary voters.
Voters have demonstrated their impatience in recent midterm elections. Democrats retook the majorities in Congress in 2006 and lost the House majority four years later. That suggests that swing voters don’t feel loyalty to either party, but instead are skeptical that either side knows what it’s doing. Now the stakes are even higher, because Washington’s decisions will be keenly felt — perhaps for years.
So under the bravado, politicians are nervous, knowing that their positions might cement their parties’ images in the public’s mind for years to come.
Be careful, Republican Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal said during a visit to Washington this week.
“Here we are in Washington, and we’re all obsessed with government,” he said. “But people back home are worried about what the economy is doing.”