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Who is responsible for the looming ‘sequester’ spending cuts?

at 06:02 AM ET, 02/11/2013


(Carolyn Kaster/AP)

Question: “Looking at all this, do you regret that this White House suggested this in the first place?”

White House spokesman Jay Carney: “The notion much propounded by the spin doctors on the Republican side that the sequester is somehow something that the White House and the president alone wanted and desired is a fanciful confection. The fact of the matter is, as I think you all recall in the wake of the passage of the Budget Control Act, it was the Republicans, including the Republican leader of the House, who celebrated it as getting 98 percent of what they wanted.”

Question: “But does he regret it anyway? I mean, regardless of whose idea it was, does he now, looking at all of the consequences that are --”

Carney: “What he regrets is that we ever had a circumstance like this country was forced to contend with in the summer of 2011 that there was a certain amount of enthusiasm even within the Republican Party, especially within the House, for the prospect of the United States defaulting on its obligations for the first time in its history.”

— exchange at the White House press briefing, Feb. 8, 2013

Who is responsible for the notorious automatic spending cuts contained in the sequester — the White House or congressional Republicans?

It’s a little like asking what came first — the chicken or the egg?

Carney’s remarks above indicate how the answer differs depending on when you start counting.

In a bit of elegant spin, Carney first denies that the sequester is something “the White House and the president alone wanted and desired.” That actually wasn’t the question. Rather, the reporter wondered whether the president regretted proposing the sequester.

Then, Carney skips back, and pins the blame on the Republicans for using the debt ceiling, including the threat of default, as a tool to force the White House to make spending cuts.

In other words, the sequester never would have been proposed if not for the threat of default. (You could play this backwards game of leapfrog for a while. Republicans might argue that the debt ceiling fight would not have been happened if Obama had been more diligent about reducing the deficit. And then Obama might reach back and blame the Bush tax cuts for keeping revenue so low. And so on.)

We’ve taken two deep dives on this issue in the past, so here is a summary of our conclusions, along with links to the original articles.

Who first suggested the sequester?

During one of the presidential debates, Obama declared that he did not propose the sequester, but that Congress did. Drawing largely on the reporting of our colleague Bob Woodward, we concluded that claim was worth Four Pinocchios.

In sum, during the debt-ceiling showdown, the White House originally proposed the idea of a compulsory trigger, with White House aide Gene Sperling calling it an “automatic sequester.” Initially, the White House plan was to include tax revenue, not just spending cuts. House Speaker John A. Boehner (R-Ohio) was “nervous” about using it as a budget tool.

But once tax increases were off the table, the White House staff came up with a sequestration plan that had only spending cuts and sold Senate Majority Leader Harry M. Reid (D-Nev.) on the idea. The White House put together the plan for sequester, using language from a congressional law approved 25 years ago.

Under the plan, a congressional “supercommittee” was tasked with finding ways to reduce the deficit by an additional $1.2 trillion over 10 years. If the committee failed — which it did — then automatic spending cuts totaling $1.2 trillion would take effect at the beginning of 2013. (The effective date was delayed until March 1 as part of the “fiscal cliff” agreement.)

Who is responsible for the looming cuts?

No matter who first came up with the idea, it took bipartisan votes to make it a reality. In other words, the sequester was part of a negotiation in which the two sides were haggling over an enforcement trigger that would cause pain on both sides. We examined this question when we awarded Two Pinocchios to the Mitt Romney campaign for trying to blame the defense cuts contained in the sequester only on President Obama.

As noted above, the Obama administration originally wanted the trigger to hinge on repeal of Bush tax cuts on the wealthy. Republicans responded by saying the trigger should be balanced by repeal of the individual mandate in Obama’s health-care law.

Ultimately, that was too much for both sides, so they settled on security spending (pain for Republicans) balanced by nonsecurity spending (pain for Democrats). But the fact remains that both sides agreed to take this step together.

In other words, Republicans cannot hide from the consequences of their own actions, especially because at the time they crowed that they had won a great victory.

Here, for instance, is a statement by Rep. Paul Ryan (R-Wis.), chairman of the Budget Committee, about the law that contained the sequester: “The Budget Control Act represents a victory for those committed to controlling government spending and growing our economy.”

The Bottom Line

The sequester was clearly an idea advanced by the White House in order to avoid a second debt-ceiling showdown in Obama’s 2012 reelection campaign. Thus, the sequester was structured to include only spending cuts — and to take effect after the election if the supercommittee was unable to reach a deal.

But Republicans agreed to this plan and thus also are equally responsible for the looming across-the-board cuts, absent a bipartisan agreement to delay or change them.

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    About the Blogger

    Glenn Kessler has covered foreign policy, economic policy, the White House, Congress, politics, airline safety and Wall Street.

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