Who Is Lying to You About Sequestration?

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Feb. 20 2013 6:46 PM

The Confused Person’s Guide to Sequester Politics

Who is lying to you about sequestration? Whom should you believe?

Speaker of the House John Boehner, with Reps. Martha Roby, R-Ala., and Cathy McMorris Rodgers, R-Wash., talk about the sequester on Feb. 13.

Photo by Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images

In nine days, $85 billion of automatic spending cuts will snap down on the federal budget. Half of the cuts will hit defense; half will hit Medicare spending. We’ve been expecting this since the summer of 2011. We were supposed to deal with it in December—remember the words fiscal cliff?—but most of Congress punted the cuts to March 1. It’s the latest in the ongoing series of manufactured crises that have made Congress our most beloved institution.

David Weigel David Weigel

David Weigel is a Slate political reporter. You can reach him at daveweigel@gmail.com, or tweet at him @daveweigel.

What’s more fun than a manufactured crisis? Why, a manufactured political spat about that crisis! Seven weeks have passed since the deadline was bumped to March, and in that time the Republican Party has alternated between attacking the White House for pushing sequestration and infighting over whether the cuts should proceed as they are. It’s confusing. I can explain.

How did this become Obama’s fault? It started with Mitt Romney, a once-influential Republican Party politician and its 2012 nominee for president. In the third debate with President Obama, Romney fretted that “a trillion dollars in cuts through sequestration and budget cuts to the military” would weaken America’s defenses. The president literally dismissed this with a wave of his hand. “The sequester is not something that I proposed,” he said. “It's something that Congress has proposed. It will not happen.”


Up to that point, Romney had talked vaguely about how “presidential leadership” could undo sequestration. Republican candidates in states with lots of jobs tied to defense spending muddled the origins of the deal, the better to blame Democrats for “devastating job losses.”

Voters refused to blame Democrats for the cuts. Why would they? Sequestration was part of a debt deal signed in order to get Republicans to raise the debt limit. But here, on national TV, the president was putting the blame for sequestration (we can probably blame him for popularizing the bowdlerization, sequester) on “Congress.” Republicans knew that wasn’t true.

It wasn’t? Not really. The accidental Bible of Sequestration is The Price of Politics, Bob Woodward’s history of the debt-limit wars, and one of the least flattering portrayals of the president this side of Breitbart.com. In it, Woodward recounts a July 27, 2011, afternoon meeting between Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid and White House negotiators. Reid wanted a “trigger” as part of a debt deal, some way to force more cuts in the future without defaulting on the debt that summer. Chief of Staff Jack Lew and adviser Rob Nabors proposed sequestration, as a threat that could be averted if/when Congress passed a better deal.

But didn’t John Boehner take credit for sequestration? Yeah, but he didn’t take credit for the concept. On July 31, 2011, Boehner made a PowerPoint presentation to House Republicans that mentioned all the nice triggers they’d get if they backed the deal. Boehner, at the time, was trying to convince a lot of members who had sworn never to raise the debt limit that they could knuckle under and get cuts later. “Sequestration process,” read one slide, “is designed to guarantee that Congress acts on the Joint Committee’s legislation to cut spending.”

What’s the difference between his position and Obama’s position? Almost nothing, really, except for the blink-and-you’ll-miss-it reference to “cutting spending.” Boehner’s job was to convince Republicans that the deal would not lead to tax hikes down the road. He succeeded. And when the “Supercommittee” collapsed, there was no grand bargain to cut spending while hiking taxes.

Then who cares whether Obama or Congress came up with the idea? Republicans care! They’ve spent the past few weeks blaming Obama for sequestration, bringing the media along with a good old-fashioned hypocrisy hook. Since January, Republican leaders have taken care to rename sequestration “the president’s sequester.” On Feb. 8, Republican leaders unveiled the hashtag #Obamaquester, to be used whenever tweeting a story about 1) failure of presidential leadership, 2) some sad job cuts being threatened at home, or 3) a breaking-news video of a Democrat saying that Obama agreed to sequestration. “He drove this thing in August of 2011,” said Sen. John Thune on Fox News this month, referring to the president. “He wanted the sequester—you read Woodward's book and page 326 or somewhere in there—and these deep cuts in defense, thinking at the time that that would put enough pressure on Republicans to get them to agree to higher taxes.”

Right, and Republicans have “twice passed legislation” to replace the sequestration cuts. Who told you that? It’s a common Republican talking point, but it’s misleading in two ways. The House passed two bills related to sequestration replacement, but the first one, in May 2012, didn’t offer specific cuts. It moved the total amount of defense cuts over into the non-defense budget, like a croupier moving chips into the winner’s pile. The actual replacement cuts were only spelled out in the Spending Reduction Act of 2012, passed by a razor-thin, Republicans-only vote on Dec. 20, 2012. The Congress that passed it expired on Jan. 3 of this year, so the bill is dead.