How the sequester became politically inevitable

February 5, 2013

The sequester -- a series of across-the-board cuts to domestic and defense programs totaling more than $1 trillion and set to go into effect March 1 -- was created less than two years ago by Congress and the White House as the ultimate insurance policy against legislative inaction on the country's debt problems.

No one thought it could (or would) actually happen. And yet here we are with President Obama on Tuesday proposing a last-ditch attempt to delay the sequester with a small-bore package of spending cuts and tax changes.

What does the sequester's move from close-to-unimaginable to close-to-unavoidable prove? That most basic rule of Washington: The politically easiest path is the one politicians prefer to take.


The sequester cuts were supposed to scare politicians. Didn't work. Photo by Quirky

The theory of the sequester was a simple one: By combining the threat of large-scale defense cuts, which Republicans abhor, with large-scale domestic program cuts, which Democrats abhor, Congress and the White House could spur itself into action to addressing the nation's long term debt and spending issues since the alternative was politically unpalatable.

In the third presidential general election debate last October, President Obama, under attack from Mitt Romney about the possibility of the sequester going into effect, stated bluntly: "It will not happen." Obama was breaking no new ground with that statement. There was almost no one who thought that any Member of Congress would let the sequester go into effect.

Then came the fiscal cliff fight in late 2012.  While there were all sorts of political machinations and maneuvers during that time, the most important one was that House Speaker John Boehner proved unable to round up the votes to pass a proposal that would have exempted all but those making $1 million or more a year from a tax increase.

What the failure of Boehner's "Plan B" proved is that not voting on something  -- particularly something that contains a series of politically unpopular things like raising taxes or cutting programs -- is a whole heck of a lot easier than voting on it. (The motto of Congress is, to quote Paul Rudd in "Forgetting Sarah Marshall": "Do less.")

And, all of a sudden, the prospect of the sequester, which requires Congress to -- you guessed it -- do nothing, didn't seem all that bad.  For Republicans, the sequester accomplished two things simultaneously: 1) it allowed them to avoid voting on (and, therefore, owning) a package that included tax reforms/increases as well as spending cuts and 2) it ensured more than $1 trillion in federal spending.

While some elements of the party -- John McCain being the most prominent -- argued that the sequester would do considerable damage to the military, there seemed (and seems) to be a tacit understanding that letting it simply happen wouldn't be the worst thing ever.

And so, it wasn't terribly surprising that Boehner pooh-poohed the idea of a short term fix almost as soon as Obama proposed it. “President Obama first proposed the sequester and insisted it become law,” Boehner said in a statement Tuesday. “Republicans have twice voted to replace these arbitrary cuts with common-sense cuts and reforms that protect our national defense.....The president’s sequester should be replaced with spending cuts and reforms that will start us on the path to balancing the budget in 10 years.”

It remains to be seen whether Boehner moves off of that negotiating position or if Obama is willing to compromise on what sorts of tax changes would be in his short term proposal.

But, make no mistake -- the sequester allows politicians to do what comes naturally to them: Blame the other guy for the problem and keep their hands clean(ish). Which is why it still very well may happen.

Chris Cillizza writes “The Fix,” a politics blog for the Washington Post. He also covers the White House.
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Aaron Blake | February 5, 2013