The Sequester Superhero

Why the Republican Party’s sequestration strategy only makes Obama stronger.

U.S. House Speaker John Boehner (R-OH) is pictured during remarks to the media on Capitol Hill in Washington February 28, 2013.
U.S. President Barack Obama

Photo by Olivier Douliery-Pool/Getty Images

The last halfhearted hopes of a sequestration fix died Thursday afternoon, with Senate Republicans voting to give more power to President Obama. The plan was anonymously titled S. 16—a missed opportunity, after Democrats spangled their bill with stars and called it the American Family Economic Protection Act. Republican Oklahoma Sen. James Inhofe and Pennsylvania Sen. Pat Toomey were less interested in a name than in details. Their bill replaced the meat-axe cuts of the Budget Control Act with flexibility: “The Secretary of Defense may transfer amounts appropriated for the Department of Defense by the Continuing Appropriations Resolution.”

This plan failed. Thirty-six Republicans and two Democrats backed it, leaving them 22 votes short of cloture. But why were most Republicans ready to put $85 billion worth of spending cuts on the president, asking his agencies to make the choices? Why not make that call for themselves? Surely they, and not Barack Obama, know which planes need to be built and which military bases need to stay open.

After the vote, Inhofe reminded me that the bill would have required the president to preview his cuts for Congress. Congress could have overridden the cuts, if it came to that.

“For those people who think I’m giving the president more power, they don’t know me or my relationship with the president,” he said. “Our bill merely gives the administration the capacity to rearrange the cuts, so that they’re not so devastating.”

Republicans have one goal, running through all of these negotiations. They don’t want sequestration to be replaced by tax revenue. Any tax revenue. Forcing the president to swallow $85 billion in cuts this year would do that. They’ve got no obvious alternatives.

But a plan like this exposes a quirk of Obama-era fiscal hawksmanship. Republicans want specific cuts. Some of them—total repeal of Obamacare!—they’ll put on the record. The rest of them, they try to put on the White House. As soon as the “supercommittee” failed and sequestration looked real, it became “the president’s sequester.” The 2011 debt-limit deal delayed real action until after the 2012 election, betting $1.2 trillion of chips on its results and giving them to the president. Even the first great structural victory of the Tea Party, the ban on legislative earmarks, handed more clout to the White House. “The power to make thousands of spending decisions, on everything from which flood control projects will be funded to how spending on military bases will be distributed, to President Obama,” warned two political scientists at the time. Republicans ignored those particular political scientists.

Vote by vote, accidentally, Republicans are endorsing an imperial vision of the presidency. Perhaps they’re picking this up by osmosis. The default position of the punditocracy is that the president must lead. The lazy pundit invokes Harry Truman’s desk ornament, “The Buck Stops Here,” as a totem of great wisdom. Brendan Nyhan, who isn’t lazy, calls this “the Green Lantern Theory of the Presidency,” after the D.C. Comics superhero and his ring that runs on willpower. Bob Woodward offered a sterling example of the theory this week, when he suggested that the president’s willingness to obey the Budget Control Act (the law that mandates sequestration) was “madness.”

“Can you imagine Ronald Reagan sitting there saying, ‘Oh, by the way, I can’t do this because of some budget document?’” asked Woodward. “Under the Constitution, the president is commander in chief and employs the force.”

Indeed he is, but when the president does it, it’s not always legal. The president can only spend what Congress appropriates. Prior Congresses, just as aggressive as this Republican-run House, have used that power to cut off money, like the Nixon-era Democrats did when they stanched the budget for the Vietnam War. And when they took over the House in 2011, John Boehner’s Republicans immediately introduced a bill to repeal the Affordable Care Act. But this assortment of Republicans is less sure how to exercise power.

“I think there’s a realization among House Republicans that Barack Obama is not Bill Clinton,” said Ohio Rep. Pat Tiberi, one of the conference’s leading tax-reform voices. “If Bill Clinton were president, giving him flexibility would be an OK thing. Unfortunately, the trust level between House Republicans and this administration, how they’ve politicized almost everything? Gee, he might use flexibility to make sequestration worse than it could be!”

So a mile-wide gulf cracks open between that theory of the president and the dominant, make-him-own-the-cuts theory. “Frankly, I think the administration will have very few options,” said one Republican member of Congress who favored the “flexibility” bill. “You have to go to administrative costs and overhead, procurements that aren’t working—you have a limited number of things to work with. If they’re going to do something like shut down Guantanamo, it’s going to cost more money, not less.”

After Friday, when the sequestration becomes a real thing, Republicans will get another, harder choice between the theories. At the end of March, they need to pass a new appropriations bill to fund the government. They can pass an omnibus bill, combining all the spending plans they need. That would put the onus on Congress to define how the money gets spent. Alternatively, they can pass a continuing resolution, spending numbers based on the Budget Control Act. That would keep the onus on the White House; that’s the plan most likely to rise to the top.

But that’ll happen later. On Thursday, Democrats helped defeat the “flexibility” plan, then denounced Republicans who filibustered the Democrats sequestration fix—a combination of spending cuts and tax increases. “[A fellow senator] mentioned the president’s budget as if that is controlling!” said retiring Iowa Sen. Tom Harkin, a Democrat. “Are we now hearing from the other side that we should just carte blanche rubber stamp the president’s budget? I hope not!”

All but four Senate Democrats backed the “balanced” sequestration fix. (Sen. Harry Reid, one of the four, opposed it as a procedural measure, as a way to reconsider it later.) Republicans rushed out with statements pointing out that they had wanted to give the president the power to re-order sequester cuts but that Senate Democrats refused to lead and pass a bill. Kansas Republican Sen. Jerry Moran, the forgotten member of the forgotten “Tea Party Caucus,” took his place on the floor to denounce “a reliance on ridiculous gimmicks to solve our problems.” He was referring to the Democrats.