Pre-Season Is Over: Sequester Politics Opening Day Is Today
What's happened so far on the sequester is the equivalent of spring training in baseball and pre-season in football: It doesn't count and isn't necessarily indicative of what's ahead.
But everything changes today as the sequester that so far has only been hypothetical and something primarily discussed inside the beltway starts to become real for increasing numbers of voters outside Washington.
This is not an insignificant number of people. Polls taken over the past week or so show that only about 25 percent of Americans say they have been following the sequester argument (It's really hard to call it a "debate"). That number will increase rapidly as the sequester spending cuts reduce federal services that people rely on and like and voter emotions change from amusement to annoyance to outrage.
This is not speculation: It's exactly what happened during the 1995 and 1996 government shutdowns. Republican intransigence changed to extreme political concern as the shutdowns continued and the federally-provided services that many outside of Washington didn't even realize were federally provided continued to be unavailable to them. The inconvenience changed to anger and then outrage when those who did business with the government realized they couldn't get their invoices processed and proposals reviewed, and there was no way to deliver what had already been ordered.
A sequester is not a shutdown and its effects will become increasingly apparent over the coming weeks rather than instantly. The programs and services that will be affected immediately will be those that are not labor-intensive such as grants and contracts. As the month continues and layoffs and furloughs begin to be implemented, other activities that are heavily dependent on employees providing a service -- meat inspections, airport security screenings, air traffic control, etc. -- will be increasing reduced.
I expect the White House to be announcing the program-by-program layoffs and furloughs well in advance of them actually occurring. Therefore, the reductions in services will increase anxiety and accelerate the political impact before they are implemented.
Once the focus of the sequester shifts from inside to to outside the beltway, the politics should change substantially. The members of Congress that today are saying they are absolutely adamant about letting the sequester stay in place will start to waiver as their constituents become increasingly unhappy about the impact of the spending cuts on their lives. That's exactly what happened in 1995 and 1996
But...There are three big difference from the two federal shutdowns that could affect this: (1) the number of safe congressional districts, (2) the tea party, and (3) John Boehner (R-OH) being a much weaker speaker than Newt Gingrich (R-GA). These changes mean both that House members may not care as much about overall approval ratings as they do about the approval of their base voters in their individual districts, and that their leadership may not be able to sell them on any deal even if it wants to make one. If that's the case, the sequester could stay in place much longer than either of the two shutdowns did individually or cumulatively.