Bob Woodward and the Mystery of the Mobile Goalposts

The White House spent part of yesterday the same way I spent it: Asking what in the world Bob Woodward meant when he said that asking for revenue in a sequestration fix was “moving the goalposts.” In Woodward’s paper, the “goalposts” argument was kicked apart by Ezra Klein. (WaPo gave this article the same treatment as Woodward’s original, blasting it out to a breaking news list, but added a cough-cough-ahem introduction. “The Watergate legend’s interpretation of the sequester deal is challenged by his newsroom’s twentysomething political economy whiz,” wrote David Beard at the top of the email.)

Woodward emailed Mike Allen, criticizing the “mixed up” White House for a “confusion of chronology.”

Take the letter from the 40 Republicans, Boehner’s offer of $600 billion in revenue and the Pat Toomey revenue offer. The White House implies that these were part of the sequester negotiation. They were not. The sequester agreement had already been signed into law in the summer. Those offers cited by the White House were made in November, 2011 – while the supercommittee was trying to reach agreement BEFORE its Nov. 23, 2011, deadline – and did not relate to the sequester.

And? Sequestration was designed and pass with the express purpose of being replaced. It wasn’t just the White House saying this. In his now famous powerpoint presentation to House Republicans, John Boehner put up a slide promising that the “sequestration process is designed to guarantee that Congress acts on the Joint Committee’s legislation.”

Boehner characterized that hypothetical legislation as stuff that would “cut spending,” but that wasn’t what the White House thought it was agreeing to. In The Price of Politics, Woodward cites Matt Bai’s 2012 tick-tock of the debt fight as a story that explained the “contours” of the drama. Here’s Bai:

Because tax reform would take some time for Congress to puzzle out, while the spending cuts were relatively straightforward, the White House had been concerned from the start about being double-crossed. How could Democrats be assured that the Republican-controlled House wouldn’t simply announce a deal, enact only the spending cuts they wanted and then sabotage the revenue piece? The answer, Obama’s team decided, were a couple of ”triggers” – something both sides really hated – that would automatically kick in if they didn’t come up with a version of tax reform that each party could stomach.

So why does Woodward suggest that subsequent offers that would have replaced sequestration “did not relate” to it? We don’t know, because in this same Woodward email to Allen, he concedes the point.

There is no doubt the president was seeking more revenue all along and there have been revenue discussions all along. I never said or suggested there were not such discussions.

Then what are we arguing about? Well, one early version of the triggers/sequestration plan would have kicked the fight over deficit reduction and tax reform to March 2012. The White House nixed that, preferring to have the fight after the 2012 election. Woodward digs in, and argues that because the initial version of a sequestration fix (the supercommittee) failed, the White House traded away any right to replace the sequester with anything but cuts.

The deal negotiated by Vice President Biden and Senate Minority Leader McConnell on the sequester gave the president something he deemed essential: a one-step increase in the debt ceiling so he and the Congress would not have to repeat another contentious debt ceiling negotiation in election year 2012. That was his win. The Republican win was no tax increases in what became the sequester.  Election year 2012 has passed. To seek more tax increases is to change the terms of the agreement.

Again: Everyone in Washington is trying to change the terms of the agreement. That’s why the agreement was designed to be such a rough beast. It’s true, the Budget Control Act specifies that a “joint committee” has to come up with cuts, but it also says that in a failure to do so “the discretionary spending limits listed in section 251(c) shall be revised, and discretionary appropriations and direct spending shall be reduced.” But in 2012, Republicans passed a “sequester replacement” bill that altered the spending limits, turning all the cuts to defense spending into cuts to non-defense discretionary spending. Right now Senate Democrats have a sequestration fix that would replace the cuts with a combination of cuts and tax increases. You could say that both parties are “shifting the goalposts,” but that would be strange. You could accuse the White House, alone, of shifting the goalposts, but that would be even stranger, because they’ve been talking about a fix that would raise revenues since before sequestration even passed.