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.  

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.

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.

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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