Whose Sequester Is It, Anyway?

Treasury Secretary nominee Jack Lew shares a laugh with former U.S. Sen. Pete V. Domenici (R-NM) during his Senate Finance Committee confirmation hearing, February 13, 2013 in Washington, DC.

Photo by Mark Wilson/Getty Images

The stupidest debate in Washington isn’t a debate at all. It centers on this question: Whose idea was it to include mandatory sequestration in the 2011 debt deal? The record is clear, and Bob Woodward has the version of it that Republicans prefer to cite. On July 27, 2011 according to Woodward, the White House’s negotiators told Harry Reid they had a way out of the thicket. As Woodward reports in his book, The Price of Politics:

“We have an idea for the trigger,” [then-Chief-of-Staff Jack] Lew said.

“What’s the idea?” Reid asked skeptically.


Reid bent down and put his head between his knees, almost as if he were going to throw up.

Woodward reports that Reid got over his disbelief once told that sequestration would hit defense spending as much as it would hit Medicare. He still considered it “ridiculous,” but understood, and sequestration became part of the White House’s proposal. Republicans have latched onto this story like a life preserver lifted off a sinking ship. For weeks they’ve encouraged campaign flacks and members to use the hashtag #Obamaquester to really drive home that the automatic cuts are Obama’s faults. For weeks, the White House has pointed out that Republicans also voted for the deal that contains them. Republicans characterize that as blame-shifting. My favorite example of this today comes from this NRCC video, a short clip of CNN pundits explaining where the sequester came from. “It was manufactured right here in Washington,” says Gloria Borger, “by the president of the United States, aaa—”… the video cuts the rest of the sentence, “and Congress,” leaving Borger’s voice frozen mid-vowel.

The problem: The whole debate assumes that reporters are stupid and didn’t pay attention in 2011. Sequestration was part of a last-minute deal. What was the deal meant to prevent? Why, crashing through the debt limit, something previous Congresses had either let slide (in most cases) or demanded minor concessions for. The White House, gobsmacked by demands, wanted to raise the debt limit with no preconditions. Republicans demanded preconditions. Woodward reports (but Republicans don’t as often mention) that the sequestration’s mix of cuts—with no tax hikes—was what Kentucky Sen. Mitch McConnell demanded. (An automatic tax increase also would have fit the “so horrible we should make a deal to avoid it” standard.)

But they have to fight about something. And Republicans need to shift the onus of irresponsibility onto the president. This is why you hear them say they “twice passed legislation to replace it with common sense cuts and reforms” without acknowledging that they only passed the details of the replacement on December 21, 2012, in the last Congress. It never had a chance of becoming law, and no one has reintroduced it in this Congress.