When federal sequestration was announced, the U.S. Secret Service said it would suspend White House tours to save the agency $74,000 a week.
The move, announced in March shortly after the maligned sequestration budget cuts went into effect, is among cuts that will save $87 billion this fiscal year. Nearly every federal program not related to an entitlement is affected.
When the White House notified Congress it would suspend the tours, House leaders were quick to decry the move and pointed to the $180,000 an hour price tag of using Air Force One. They suggested President Obama scale back his golf outings rather than restrict access to the “people’s house.”
Word was so hyped that even Donald Trump jumped in offering to pay for the tours himself. The White House, of course, declined the offer, and the story was short lived. But when the White House hosted the annual Easter egg roll on the South Lawn, a Washington tradition that welcomes tens of thousands of families to the first family’s backyard, the issue of funding and budget cuts resurfaced. The White House was able to conduct the tradition this year because of individual donations and corporate sponsors.
Of course, Easter egg rolls and White House tours are the smallest potatoes associated with the across-the-board federal budget cuts. Thousands of federal workers will be furloughed or even lose their jobs. The economic impact over time could be significant.
This wasn’t supposed to happen. Sequestration exists only because Congress couldn’t agree on how to raise the debt limit while simultaneously cutting $1.2 trillion over 10 years. It is a self-created crisis fueled by partisanship, which lacks an immediate impact. For now, it appears the GOP is winning the partisan public relations war. The sky hasn’t fallen, despite fierce warnings from the White House and congressional Democrats. And the economy continues to mend, with record highs on the Dow accompanied by a real estate rebound. Democrats are countering with more doom-and-gloom scenarios, pointing to looming prison riots and rising terror threats due to cuts.
The rhetoric surrounding sequestration overlooks the troubling fundamentals of Washington gridlock—how we got into this mess to begin with. And the gridlock magnifies the difficulties we face navigating such a deeply partisan Congress on issues such as healthcare reform. It’s like walking a very high tightrope.
In more than 10 years of lobbying Congress, I’ve often heard staffers say, “I’ve never seen it this bad before.” It reminds me of the overblown rhetoric that defines every presidential campaign as the most important election in our lifetime. Both lines are repeated ad nauseam, and somehow, in their respective contexts, they always sound true.
The political circumstances that led to the makeup of the 113th Congress have created a real maze for our lobbying efforts. My boss, Joel Wood, the senior vice president of government affairs, always says we’re generally fortunate that most of our legislative issues do not fall between party lines. That’s certainly the case with our efforts to advocate for agent licensing reform. In fact, for the first time, we can say our efforts to create a national uniform licensing regime enjoy the support of all major stakeholders and a bill is more likely than ever to reach the president’s desk.
Yet trying to get members of Congress to work on healthcare reform issues outside of the political spectrum seems impossible. Unfortunately, the Affordable Care Act is now trophy legislation that belongs to Democrats. Neither side is willing to reopen the debate to address critical issues like looming premium increases and the act’s unintended impact on self-insured plans.
It’s not because members from both sides of the aisle aren’t sympathetic to our message or our goals. It’s more because of the politics they face at home. Republicans from deeply red districts or states are more fearful of primary challenges from the right than from a general election challenge, and they don’t dare risk appearing centrist by tinkering with a Democratic trophy.
Most Democratic leaders, particularly in the House, represent seats that are so blue they don’t need to reopen a debate about healthcare reform for which they originally fell on their swords.
Much of the partisanship in the House of Representatives is due to gerrymandering following the 2010 census, which created deep blue and deep red districts. But now the phenomenon is bleeding into the U.S. Senate (which is looking increasingly like the U.S. House). Today, former senators such as Olympia Snowe, R-Maine, Ted Kennedy, D-Mass., and Richard Lugar, R-Ind., who often reached across the aisle to craft bipartisan legislation, are truly a thing of the past. Because of retirements and electoral defeats of expert legislators, only 50% percent of senators today held their job before 2010.
As I talk about the Affordable Care Act on Capitol Hill, I see striking similarities between its unintended consequences and the politics of sequestration. They are both products of partisanship, they are both self-created, and the gradual phase-in periods lack an immediate crisis that would otherwise force the hand of Congress.
It’s our job as your Washington lobbyists to educate Congress and find workable solutions, and I am optimistic we will win the day. Meanwhile, we are closely following the politics of sequestration and on the lookout for any bipartisan openings.