Who’s to Blame for the Sequester?
The sequester was Obama’s idea, but that doesn’t mean he’s to blame for the crisis, says Michael Tomasky.
Whose “idea” was the sequester, and why should it matter? My Twitter feed these last couple of weeks has been overflowing with people going beyond the usual “communist” and “idiot” name-calling that I get every day and throwing the occasional “liar” in there because I “withhold” the information that the sequester was the Obama administration’s idea. Very well, consider that nugget hereby unwithheld. Let’s grant that this is true. But it’s true only because the Republicans were holding a gun to the administration’s head—and besides, the Republicans immediately voted for it. In any case the important thing now is that outside of Fox News land, it’s an unimportant fact whose “idea” it was. The Republicans are partial owners of this idea, and as the party that now wants the cuts to kick in, they deserve to—and will—bear more responsibility for the negative impacts.
A trip back through the full context of this saga tells the story. The idea of having these deep budget cuts called “sequestration” goes back to the summer of 2011 and the debt-ceiling negotiations. You’ll recall readily enough that it was first time in history that an opposition party had attempted to attach any conditions to increasing the debt limit. You’ll also recall that the Republicans made this intention quite clear from the beginning of 2011; indeed, from campaign time the year before. Remember Obama’s quotes from late 2010 in which he said he felt sure the Republicans would behave more reasonably once the responsibility to govern was partly theirs?
Instead, they almost crashed the economy. And they were also clearly the side pushing for drastic spending cuts. Let’s go back quickly over a partial 2011 timeline. In April, Obama spokesman Jay Carney said it was the president’s position that raising the debt limit “shouldn’t be held hostage to any other action.” On May 11, Austan Goolsbee, then Obama’s chief economic adviser, said that tying a debt-limit increase to spending cuts was “quite insane.”
On May 16, the United States went into technical default, but the Treasury Department was able to string things along a few more weeks. Tim Geithner made it clear that the real problem would hit August 1. A key moment, as Scott Lilly of the Center for American Progress wrote in The Huffington Post, came on May 31. That’s when the GOP-run House voted on Obama’s request for a “clean” debt-limit increase. It failed, and all 236 Republicans voted no.
All this time, and right on up to August 1, Republicans were screaming for deep budget cuts, and the administration was saying no. But the Republicans had the leverage because it actually seemed plausible they were crazy enough to push the country into default. And so at that point, at least according to Bob Woodward in his new book, Jack Lew, then the budget director and now Obama’s nominee for Treasury secretary, originally came up with the notion of sequestered cuts. Or maybe it was Gene Sperling. The White House’s idea was based on language from the 1985 Gramm-Rudman-Hollings deficit-reduction act. It was also the White House’s notion that if the “trigger” was hit, what would kick in would be not only automatic budget cuts but also automatic revenue increases (an idea Republicans refused to go along with).
So fine, the White House proposed it. It did so only after months of Republicans publicly demanding huge spending cuts and refusing to consider any revenues and acting as if they were prepared to send the nation into default over spending. In other words, this was the administration’s idea in much the way that it’s a parent’s “idea” to pay ransom to a person who has taken his child hostage. There was a gun to the White House’s head, which was the possibility of the country going into default.
And then, when it was all put into legislation, it was the Republicans who passed the Budget Control Act of 2011 in the House, with 218 of them voting yes. So even if administration officials proposed it, it would have remained just a proposal if those 218 Republicans hadn’t supported it (no House Democrats backed it). Most Republicans agreed at the time that the sequestration trigger was a good thing—that it would force everyone to get together and agree to a path forward and a long-term budget deal.
Let’s say that I’m having a dispute with a neighbor I don’t really like or trust about some invasive weeds infesting both of our properties. We consider a range of options and then finally he proposes a solution that isn’t very appetizing to either of us—it’s expensive, might kill a lot of grass, say, or a couple trees. It’s not exactly desirable to either of us, but I endorse his suggestion and share the costs of implementation of his plan. If it ends up killing grass or trees, am I really then on firm moral ground in pointing my finger and saying, “Hey, it was your idea, bub”?
I guess maybe conservatives think that way, but of course I don’t. I assented to the plan. I share responsibility for the consequences. Where my little analogy collapses is that in my hypothetical, my neighbor and I are more or less equally affected by the negative outcome. The Republicans’ ace card is that they know, or they hope they know, they are not equally affected. Austere cuts will harm the economy, and the blame will fall on the president.
Normally yes. But the majority of the people are onto them. And it sure isn’t going to be looking very responsible to people, as the March 1 sequestration deadline approaches, for Republicans to be going before the cameras and saying that the cuts are unfortunate but necessary medicine, or whatever formulation they come up with. They’ve wanted these spending reductions for two years. It hardly matters much who invented the mechanism for the cuts. What matters, as the Republicans will find out, is that the people don’t want them.