Was the Sequester Obama's Idea? Who Cares?

Who originated the idea matters less than who enacted it and who is trying to fix it.

By SHARE
FE_130219_obama.jpg

The Great Sequester Showdown of 2013 (also known as Fiscal Wars: Episode Ad Nauseum) is in its final stretch, with big, harmful spending cuts due to hit in 10 days and each side seeming to settle on its closing argument in the fight. President Obama made his case at the White House today, surrounded by firefighters and first responders. His view, in short: Let's avoid the sequester by replacing it with deficit reduction that includes both spending cuts and new tax revenues. The short version of the GOP case is: The sequester was Obama's idea.

This from The Hill this morning:

Republicans are also getting ready to battle by reminding voters it was the White House that conceived of the sequester—the $1.2 trillion in deficit reductions, including lower interest payments, that were included as part of the deal in 2011 to raise the debt ceiling.

[ See a collection of political cartoons on the Republican Party.]

Even if you accept the veracity of this premise—the GOP cites Bob Woodward's recent book about Washington's fiscal circus, and I have no reason to think it wrong—there are several problems with it.

The biggest is that it really doesn't matter who originated the specific idea. In fact the debate surrounding that question is, as Dave Weigel points out, the stupidest argument going on in D.C. today, and that's saying something. To think that the GOP can avoid blame for the consequences of the sequester is to think voters are terminally stupid. It would be like conservatives saying that the Heritage Foundation owns Obamacare because its scholars originated the idea of the individual mandate.

What matters is who enacted it. And thanks to the genius of Founding Fathers (see: "checks and balances" and "Civics 101"), enacting the sequester required the active support of not only President Obama but also congressional Republicans. In fact 174 House Republicans—including the entire leadership—voted for it; and a majority of Senate Republicans voted for it, including, again, the entire leadership. So who owns the sequester? President Obama and the GOP, together.

[ See a collection of political cartoons on the budget and deficit.]

Now I suppose they could all plead helplessness in the face of President Obama's indomitable leadership. Or they could simply own up to the fact that as members of one of the branches of government they actually had a say in the construction of this law. And they said: Yes. (And then they bragged about their involvement.)

Of course the sequester does not exist in isolation. It's important to remember the law's context—how it came about. To wit, the Budget Control Act was passed in response to the 2011 debt ceiling hostage crisis, where Republicans threatened the full faith and credit of the United States unless they got their way. In other words they created a crisis and then participated in its "resolution" … which precipitated a crisis of its own.

Which brings us to what does matter as we approach the sequester deadline: Who is working to solve it? House Republicans have passed bills aiming to replace the sequester's "meat cleaver" approach, to use President Obama's words, with more targeted cuts which happen to target Democratic priorities while relieving the pressure on defense spending. Democrats have proposed replacements which follow the "balanced" approach Obama favors—spending restraint they're not necessarily wild about and increased revenues through closing tax loopholes, which of course Republicans don't like.

[ See a collection of political cartoons on sequestration and the fiscal cliff.]

Some on the right criticize this approach based on the idea that any new tax revenues are a nonstarter for Republicans. See, for example, Michael Gerson's Washington Post column. But as the Maddow Blog's Steve Benen points out, this criticism carries with it a pernicious logic:

What Gerson is arguing is that in the sequester fight, Democrats are to blame—or least share half the blame—because Democrats are not simply giving Republicans what they want. Dems know the GOP won't accept a compromise that requires concessions in both sides, so Dems are being needlessly "aggressive" and are pushing an "unacceptable" solution by asking the two sides to meet somewhere in the middle.

Why? Because the Democratic compromise offer expects Republicans to be reasonable—and according to Gerson, this necessarily means Democrats are being irresponsible.

[ Read the U.S. News Debate: Does the United States Need a Balanced Budget Amendment?]

All of this points up the dilemma facing congressional Republicans, and underscores why they probably won't budge on the issue, at least for the next 10 days. One of the GOP's overarching problems right now is an enduring gap between what its base wants and what the public at large favors, and specifically as regards to issues like compromise and using taxes to help narrow the budget deficit. Most polls show that the GOP base opposes compromise and taxes; the same polls show that as a general matter the electorate favors compromise in general and using a mix of new tax revenue and spending cuts.

The public policy problem facing the country is that, thanks especially to gerrymandering, most Republican politicians have more to fear from their party's base—those, in other words, who vote in primaries—than from general election voters.

What does it all add up to? A very bad March.