Success may have a thousand fathers, and failure be an orphan, but don’t doubt the parentage of the sequester. After yet another week of White House denials of paternity and a new layer of hysteria over the nature of the cuts involved, Bob Woodward reminds us again who came up with the plan in the first place. As he reported in his book The Price of Politics more than a year ago from on-the-record interviews with the players involved, the sequester was proposed by then-Chief of Staff Jack Lew and personally approved by President Barack Obama, before Harry Reid presented it to Republicans as a take-it-or-leave-it option to end the summer 2011 budget standoff:
My extensive reporting for my book “The Price of Politics” shows that the automatic spending cuts were initiated by the White House and were the brainchild of Lew and White House congressional relations chief Rob Nabors — probably the foremost experts on budget issues in the senior ranks of the federal government.
Obama personally approved of the plan for Lew and Nabors to propose the sequester to Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.). They did so at 2:30 p.m. July 27, 2011, according to interviews with two senior White House aides who were directly involved.
Nabors has told others that they checked with the president before going to see Reid. A mandatory sequester was the only action-forcing mechanism they could devise. Nabors has said, “We didn’t actually think it would be that hard to convince them” — Reid and the Republicans — to adopt the sequester. “It really was the only thing we had. There was not a lot of other options left on the table.”
A majority of Republicans did vote for the Budget Control Act that summer, which included the sequester. Key Republican staffers said they didn’t even initially know what a sequester was — because the concept stemmed from the budget wars of the 1980s, when they were not in government.
Why lie about this? Woodward explains that shifting blame is a necessary part of moving the goal posts the actual issue at hand in August 2011. By that point, the real problem for Obama was the debt ceiling, and the sequester put off the question of both spending cuts and tax increases. Republicans had agreed at that point to a deal that included a 1:1 ratio of new revenues (through tax reform rather than rate increases) and spending cuts, but then Obama came back and wanted more revenues, which scotched the deal. With the debt ceiling approaching a crisis point, both goals got pushed aside in exchange for a punt and the sequester as a lever to force a decision down the road:
Lew testified during his confirmation hearing that the Republicans would not go along with new revenue in the portion of the deficit-reduction plan that became the sequester. Reinforcing Lew’s point, a senior White House official said Friday, “The sequester was an option we were forced to take because the Republicans would not do tax increases.”
In fact, the final deal reached between Vice President Biden and Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) in 2011 included an agreement that there would be no tax increases in the sequester in exchange for what the president was insisting on: an agreement that the nation’s debt ceiling would be increased for 18 months, so Obama would not have to go through another such negotiation in 2012, when he was running for reelection.
So when the president asks that a substitute for the sequester include not just spending cuts but also new revenue, he is moving the goal posts. His call for a balanced approach is reasonable, and he makes a strong case that those in the top income brackets could and should pay more. But that was not the deal he made.
Besides, Republicans already compromised on the revenue side in January. Now it’s time to work on the spending cuts, but Obama clearly doesn’t want to cut anything from the budget. The nature of the cuts in the sequester and the disconnect from White House hysteria on them is so sharp as to dispel any doubt on that point. Bill Wilson at Forbes calls the sequester cuts “non-existent”:
According to Obama, the sequester would represent “a huge blow to middle-class families and our economy as a whole.” Obama’s White House has also referred to the sequester as “devastating,” saying its cuts would “imperil our economy, our national security (and) vital programs that middle class families depend on.”
Sounds frightening – but is it true? Of course not. According to The Wall Street Journal ”federal domestic discretionary spending soared by 84 percent with some agencies doubling and tripling their budgets” during Barack Obama’s first two years in office. In fact the sequester would scale back just one of every six dollars in discretionary spending increases since 2008 – hardly a “huge blow.” Also, discretionary spending in 2008 was already tremendously inflated – having increased by more than 60 percent over the previous eight years.
In other words this isn’t even really a cut – “devastating” or otherwise – it’s a modest growth rate reduction following years of unnecessary, embarrassing and unsustainable excesses.
Wilson notes that Obama doesn’t have a monopoly on hypocrisy:
U.S. Speaker John Boehner has repeatedly referenced “the president’s sequester” while decrying its “harmful cuts.”
What hypocrisy. Obama and Boehner both supported the sequester as an excuse for yet another unsustainable run-up of our nation’s credit limit – which exhausted its latest $2.1 trillion increase last December (after less than seventeen months).
“The debt ceiling deal in 2011 was agreed to by Republicans and Democrats, and regardless of who came up with the sequester, they all voted for it,” U.S. Rep. Justin Amash (R-Michigan) said recently. “So, you can’t vote for something and, with a straight face, go blame the other guy for its existence in law.”
As Bob Corker put it last week, the sequester amounts to $1.2 trillion in reductions in the trajectory of spending growth over the next ten years, in which we project to spend $45 trillion. It amounts to a 2.7% decrease in overall spending over the decade, hardly Draconian or savage or whatever hyperventilated appellation one chooses to use. If we can’t agree to cut even that much, there is no hope for a broader budget reform that brings us back to balanced budgets in the future, and there aren’t enough taxes in the country to make up the difference from the other direction without killing the economy and wiping out revenue altogether.
Update: Via Andrew Malcolm, Obama’s still misleading everyone on the sequester:
Hi, everybody. Our top priority as a country right now should be doing everything we can to grow our economy and create good, middle class jobs.
And yet, less than one week from now, Congress is poised to allow a series of arbitrary, automatic budget cuts that will do the exact opposite. They will slow our economy. They will eliminate good jobs. They will leave many families who are already stretched to the limit scrambling to figure out what to do.
But here’s the thing: these cuts don’t have to happen. Congress can turn them off anytime with just a little compromise. They can pass a balanced plan for deficit reduction. They can cut spending in a smart way, and close wasteful tax loopholes for the well-off and well-connected.
Unfortunately, it appears that Republicans in Congress have decided that instead of compromising — instead of asking anything of the wealthiest Americans — they would rather let these cuts fall squarely on the middle class.
You know what might help? Having the Senate — controlled by Obama’s Democrats — pass an alternative. Have they done that yet? When that happens, be sure to let us know, Mr. President.