Wednesday, February 27, 2013

It's a budget negotiation, not a political campaign

On Friday, the law of the land says sequestration begins, imposing across-the-board cuts on federal spending (while leaving some spending categories untouched). Just how bad the consequences will be is being debated by the talking heads of the Democratic and Republican parties, but both parties seem to agree that sequestration is a painful remedy for Congress' inability to match its spending "wants" with its taxation "needs."

Despite this looming deadline, which some economists and President Obama say could be horrific, there is little movement on Capitol Hill to avoid sequestration. Inter-party talks appear to be non-existent. Voices of reason and negotiation are drowned out by partisan rants.

President Obama has been talking a lot about the hazards of sequestration this month, but he's talking to the wrong people. Obama is treating sequestration — and, by extension, the federal budget — as a political issue, not a fiscal responsibility or budgeting issue. He's flying around the country (5,000 miles by one critic's count) urging voters to complain to their congressional representatives. His tactic of trying to shame Congress into action does not appear to be working.

Obama is known to admire President Lincoln and has sometimes invited comparisons to John F. Kennedy. But perhaps he should look to another president, who was skilled at getting things done on Capitol Hill, even if he wasn't as charismatic as Kennedy or as eloquent as Lincoln. Lyndon B. Johnson was the Master of the Senate, who could push legislation through the often paralyzed "World's Greatest Deliberative Body." As majority leader, Johnson enjoyed unparalleled success in controlling the flow of legislation and ensuring that the party's legislative agenda was carried through to success. As president, he worked behind the scenes to persuade members of Congress to approve the legislation he supported.

Johnson realized that popular support is nice to have, but what you really need is 51 votes in the Senate and 218 votes in the House. Obama would do better if he would leave the campaign soapbox and sit down with congressional leaders to work a deal that will meet the approval of both sides.

I've been reading Robert Caro's magnificent four-volume (with a fifth volume yet to come) biography of Lyndon Johnson. Caro's books are not likely to turn the reader into a Johnson fan, but you cannot help but marvel at his legislative skills. Perhaps the books would be good reading for President Obama.

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