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

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Feb. 24 2013 4:23 PM

The Simple Sequestration Rule

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

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House Speaker John Boehner focuses on the monster, not the Big Thing, on Feb. 13.

Photo by Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images

We are headed into the peak week of sequestration insanity. The across-the-board budget cuts known as sequestration are set to take effect on March 1. Here's a simple rule for getting through the next few days: If you're talking about sequestration, you're doing it wrong. Sequestration was created to focus minds on the Big Thing. So if you’re talking obsessively about the sequestration, it means you aren’t thinking about the thing that you were supposed to be focused on. 

John Dickerson John Dickerson

John Dickerson is Slate's chief political correspondent and author of On Her Trail. Read his series on the presidency and on risk.

First, the Big Thing. The two parties need to come to an agreement on how to spur economic growth to spread prosperity and reduce the budget deficit. The president believes growth comes from a balance of tax increases, investment, and spending reductions. Republicans believe growth comes through lower taxes and spending reductions, which in turn will spur companies to hire and invest. The president believes that taxes should increase as a matter of fairness because the system is tilted in favor of the wealthy and well-connected. Republicans believe that the federal government is already taking an unfair amount of taxes from everyone.

Even if this is obvious, it’s very hard to get people to focus on the Big Thing, so lawmakers tried to come up with a mechanism to center people’s thinking. They placed a big hairy monster outside the door to keep everyone focused on the Big Thing, and they named this monster Sequestration.  

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Right now, the political world is engaged in a debate about the monster, not the Big Thing. That means that right now the public debate is irrelevant. Even worse, the public debate has become a glittery multiweek jamboree dedicated to displaying the madness that puts us in our current budgetary predicament. It is as if faced with a drinking problem, we decided to engage in all of the behavior that led to the binges, hangovers, and blackouts in the first place.

There are two examples of this dispiriting distraction: the long and tedious debate over who came up with the sequester idea and the new debate over whether tax increases were supposed to be a part of it.

The president and his aides at first tried to deny that they invented sequestration (mostly false!), but it is clear that the president and his team proposed the idea. Instead of trying to weasel out and blame the idea on the Republicans, the president should own it: Yes, it was my idea to create a monster to force all of us to focus on the Big Thing, and the fact that you still won’t focus is the proof that it was necessary to create it. But President Obama won't do this because the monster is ready to break through the door, and the president doesn't want to be blamed for the wreckage. 

But if it's obvious the president came up with the idea, it's also obvious that it doesn't matter who came up with it. First, the Big Thing matters. Remember: focus. Second, a majority of Republicans voted for sequestration. Once everyone agrees to order the monster from Acme and take off his chains, it doesn’t matter who suggested it first. Everyone agreed.

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