But what’s most disconcerting is that the political and economic conditions that led directly to the legislative fail last August will only be more intense during the lame-duck session of Congress that’s coming. The BCA cliffhanger was limited to the debt ceiling; this December it could be the debt ceiling, the extension of multiple existing tax cuts, funding to prevent a government shutdown, the sequester, the deficit and constant projections that the economy will suffer significant short-term damage if the situation isn’t handled correctly. Add to that the usual serious problems of legislating in a lame-duck session and the hyperpartisan environment in Washington that has only gotten worse since the Budget Control Act was put in place, and seeing the Sequestration Transparency Act as a sign of failure rather than a success is not all that hard.
On top of that, it’s not even clear that the STA will work as planned or hoped.
As I read the measure, the president is required to submit a plan to Congress about how the sequester could be implemented within 30 days of enactment. But the STA doesn’t say that this has to be the president’s preferred plan. To the contrary, the language in the bill seems to indicate that the president is required only to apply the rules included in the sequester provisions of the Budget Control Act as they are written but not to make irrevocable decisions about which programs will be completely or partially spared and which others will get cut more as a result.
The STA also doesn’t appear to prevent the White House from providing multiple scenarios. It does not, for example, stop the report from showing what would happen both if the president used and didn’t use the discretion granted to him in the BCA to exempt military personnel from the sequester. It also doesn’t say that the report the president submits to Congress is binding or that the White House cannot change its mind about how the sequester-required spending reductions will be implemented.
That means that the high-fives on Capitol Hill almost certainly were premature and may well have been totally misplaced. The required report is at least as likely to be meaningless as meaningful and, given that the report will have to be produced before the elections, my strong suspicion is that it won’t achieve what the STA’s supporters thought they were getting when they voted for it.
Stan Collender is a partner at Qorvis Communications and founder of the blog Capital Gains and Games. He is also the author of “The Guide to the Federal Budget.”