Why If You’re Debating Sequestration, You’re Doing It Wrong

Who's winning, who's losing, and why.
Feb. 24 2013 4:23 PM

The Simple Sequestration Rule

If you’re debating sequestration, you’re doing it wrong.

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Finally, the hunt to pin down whether Obama is shrinking from responsibility or whether John Boehner once boasted about it doesn't tell us anything about either the president or the House speaker. Normally if politicians tried to duck blame for a policy they once advocated, we would be very interested in their duplicity. They thought something was good, but now they think it's bad. Don't trust them. They're slippery. But in this case sequestration was never designed to be good. It was not designed to be a piece of policy. Everyone agreed that sequestration cuts were supposed to be so bad that prudent lawmakers on both sides would seek to avoid them by coming up with an alternative. So the fact that either side is trying to avoid sequestration—by denying provenance, pointing fingers, or raiding the minibar—is not a bug, it's a feature.

If we're going to focus on expected things when they come to pass, I suggest focusing on the sunrise because a nice sunrise is really pretty. Also, the laughter of children trying to avoid bedtime is neat. There are many more things in this category. 

The real point of sequestration was to keep everyone focused on the Big Thing: how to get growth, deficit reduction, and fairness from a divided government in a time of scarcity. That's still the point, which means if we want to make progress, we shouldn't talk about sequestration—we should talk about the solutions for slaying the monster.

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We know that averting sequestration was always the important point because it was built into sequestration agreement itself. When the monster was taken off the chain, lawmakers formed a Committee To Stay Focused and called it the “supercommittee.” It was supposed to come up with something—anything—that would keep the monster at bay. The committee was made up of stout fellows who had demonstrated in tests of strength and cable-show appearances that they could stay focused. 

Alas, the Committee To Stay Focused did not stay focused. It failed to come up with an alternative to sequestration, but that didn't change the task: how to avoid the monster through an agreement. Given that this remains the task at this hour, it is dire indeed that a new debate has erupted over the makeup of the monster. That's what this recent fight about whether taxes were ever a part of sequestration is about. Over the weekend, Republicans, citing legendary reporter Bob Woodward's reporting, argued that taxes were never supposed to be a part of sequestration. The president is "moving the goal posts" by talking about taxes. 

Democrats are trying very hard to prove that Republicans and Bob Woodward are wrong. It’s an argument they don’t need to win, and if we want to stay focused, we don't need to engage in the argument either. The fight is irrelevant: Determining whether taxes were a part of sequestration is like arguing how many arms the monster has—and it has nothing to do with the Big Thing.

Were tax increases among the things that were considered as a part of the plan to avoid the monster? Yes. The sequestration replacement could be about taxes, spending, or magic beans. Various Republicans and Democrats suggested various alternatives that included taxes. Most Republicans objected to including taxes as a part of the sequestration replacement, which is exactly what they were supposed to do. They were supposed to have a philosophical disagreement focused on the Big Thing. We should get back to that quickly—before the monster arrives.

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