The Confused Person’s Guide to Sequester Politics

Who is lying to you about sequestration? Whom should you believe?

Speaker of the House John Boehner, with Reps. Martha Roby, R-Ala., and Cathy McMorris Rodgers, R-Wash., talk about the sequester on Feb. 13.

Photo by Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images

In nine days, $85 billion of automatic spending cuts will snap down on the federal budget. Half of the cuts will hit defense; half will hit Medicare spending. We’ve been expecting this since the summer of 2011. We were supposed to deal with it in December—remember the words fiscal cliff?—but most of Congress punted the cuts to March 1. It’s the latest in the ongoing series of manufactured crises that have made Congress our most beloved institution.

What’s more fun than a manufactured crisis? Why, a manufactured political spat about that crisis! Seven weeks have passed since the deadline was bumped to March, and in that time the Republican Party has alternated between attacking the White House for pushing sequestration and infighting over whether the cuts should proceed as they are. It’s confusing. I can explain.

How did this become Obama’s fault? It started with Mitt Romney, a once-influential Republican Party politician and its 2012 nominee for president. In the third debate with President Obama, Romney fretted that “a trillion dollars in cuts through sequestration and budget cuts to the military” would weaken America’s defenses. The president literally dismissed this with a wave of his hand. “The sequester is not something that I proposed,” he said. “It’s something that Congress has proposed. It will not happen.”

Up to that point, Romney had talked vaguely about how “presidential leadership” could undo sequestration. Republican candidates in states with lots of jobs tied to defense spending muddled the origins of the deal, the better to blame Democrats for “devastating job losses.”

Voters refused to blame Democrats for the cuts. Why would they? Sequestration was part of a debt deal signed in order to get Republicans to raise the debt limit. But here, on national TV, the president was putting the blame for sequestration (we can probably blame him for popularizing the bowdlerization, sequester) on “Congress.” Republicans knew that wasn’t true.

It wasn’t? Not really. The accidental Bible of Sequestration is The Price of Politics, Bob Woodward’s history of the debt-limit wars, and one of the least flattering portrayals of the president this side of Breitbart.com. In it, Woodward recounts a July 27, 2011, afternoon meeting between Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid and White House negotiators. Reid wanted a “trigger” as part of a debt deal, some way to force more cuts in the future without defaulting on the debt that summer. Chief of Staff Jack Lew and adviser Rob Nabors proposed sequestration, as a threat that could be averted if/when Congress passed a better deal.

But didn’t John Boehner take credit for sequestration? Yeah, but he didn’t take credit for the concept. On July 31, 2011, Boehner made a PowerPoint presentation to House Republicans that mentioned all the nice triggers they’d get if they backed the deal. Boehner, at the time, was trying to convince a lot of members who had sworn never to raise the debt limit that they could knuckle under and get cuts later. “Sequestration process,” read one slide, “is designed to guarantee that Congress acts on the Joint Committee’s legislation to cut spending.”

What’s the difference between his position and Obama’s position? Almost nothing, really, except for the blink-and-you’ll-miss-it reference to “cutting spending.” Boehner’s job was to convince Republicans that the deal would not lead to tax hikes down the road. He succeeded. And when the “Supercommittee” collapsed, there was no grand bargain to cut spending while hiking taxes.

Then who cares whether Obama or Congress came up with the idea? Republicans care! They’ve spent the past few weeks blaming Obama for sequestration, bringing the media along with a good old-fashioned hypocrisy hook. Since January, Republican leaders have taken care to rename sequestration “the president’s sequester.” On Feb. 8, Republican leaders unveiled the hashtag #Obamaquester, to be used whenever tweeting a story about 1) failure of presidential leadership, 2) some sad job cuts being threatened at home, or 3) a breaking-news video of a Democrat saying that Obama agreed to sequestration. “He drove this thing in August of 2011,” said Sen. John Thune on Fox News this month, referring to the president. “He wanted the sequester—you read Woodward’s book and page 326 or somewhere in there—and these deep cuts in defense, thinking at the time that that would put enough pressure on Republicans to get them to agree to higher taxes.”

Right, and Republicans have “twice passed legislation” to replace the sequestration cuts. Who told you that? It’s a common Republican talking point, but it’s misleading in two ways. The House passed two bills related to sequestration replacement, but the first one, in May 2012, didn’t offer specific cuts. It moved the total amount of defense cuts over into the non-defense budget, like a croupier moving chips into the winner’s pile. The actual replacement cuts were only spelled out in the Spending Reduction Act of 2012, passed by a razor-thin, Republicans-only vote on Dec. 20, 2012. The Congress that passed it expired on Jan. 3 of this year, so the bill is dead.

Couldn’t Republicans introduce that bill again? They could, but they won’t. Republicans prefer the talking point to another tough vote on spending cuts, and when you ask whether they’ll move the bill, they wash their hands of the whole mess. “We’ve done our work,” Boehner spokesman Michael Steel told me via email today. “Waiting on the Senate.”

Well, fine, what’s the Senate doing? The Senate Democrats actually announced a sequestration replacement plan last week, right before this 11-day recess began. When Boehner refers to a “plan that can pass both Houses of Congress,” he is implying that this one can’t. The Republican plan couldn’t, either, but you know how it is.

What’s the difference between the House Republican plan and the Senate Democrats’ plan? You can’t name just one. The Senate plan would replace the $85 billion of cuts this year with $110 billion of cuts and taxes, reducing the defense cuts to $27.5 billion and raising (hopefully) $54 billion with the “Buffet rule,” the new millionaire income tax. The House Republican plan from last year replaced all the defense cuts—over the 10-year sequestration period, not just this year—by undoing much of the Obama presidency. The “Orderly Liquidation Authority” in Dodd-Frank, the $22 billion dedicated to breaking down banks? Gone. The Social Services Block Grant? Gone for $17 billion. The $14.5 billion for state health care exchanges and the $16 billion Prevention and Public Health Fund created by Obamacare? Gone.

Any better ideas? I wouldn’t say “better,” but there are two factions in the GOP that oppose their party’s “official” plan. The first, larger faction: Spending hawks who are willing to let the axe come down on defense. “They all voted to raise the debt ceiling with a military sequester,” Sen. Rand Paul told me last year, “and now they’re all basically caterwauling about it.” In his Tea Party response to the State of the Union, he opposed any wimpy replacement of sequestration. Hawks like him are unconvinced by the warnings of huge job losses. “I think that’s the kind of demagoguery that we see when people aren’t interested in true spending reductions,” said Georgia Rep. Tom Price, who has a decent chance of being elected to the Senate next year. “They always put the worst thing out there that affects people’s guts.”

The other Republican faction consists of defense hawks, like Sen. Lindsey Graham and Sen. John McCain, who want to replace this year’s defense cuts with cuts to the federal workforce. They might be the most dangerous, friendly-firing Republicans of all, in pure “messaging” terms.

I give up. Why? Because Graham, McCain, and other defense hawks challenge the conventional (and wrong) wisdom that sequestration would sign up Washington for horrible cuts it could never undo. Earlier this month, one Republican member tried to convince me that the damage from sequestration wouldn’t be as bad as people say, because the next fight in Washington will be over the continuing resolution that funds the government. Congress can whittle down the “meat axe” and change what gets cut. “On March 28,” said the Republican, “you can re-order the priorities of how these reductions take place. Give the heads of these departments the flexibility they need to make smart savings.”

If that happens, then the eternal battle over spending cuts and tax hikes continues, moving past an event Republicans can blame on the president. The public is pretty well acclimated to blaming Republicans for a government shutdown, in part because there are lots of Republican members on record not worrying about a shutdown. The White House knows that. Democrats know that the “Buffett rule” is incredibly popular. And they know it’s the Republicans, not them, who are grasping for leverage. It was one short month ago that House Republicans met in Williamsburg and agreed to punt the debt limit a few months, because they’d rather fight on the sequester, and look more responsible.

“Why wouldn’t we deal with the smaller [challenges] first,” said South Carolina Rep. Mick Mulvaney at that retreat. “Maybe build up a little momentum, a little credibility, not only with the credit markets, but with the folks back home, that we can deal with these things.” It made more sense than blaming the next wave of the debt crisis on Barack Obama.