Who is responsible for the sequester?

February 5, 2013

So just who is responsible for the looming and drastic automatic spending cuts known as the "sequester"?

It depends on what the definition of the word "responsible" means.

Republicans have made a concerted effort this week to argue that the sequester belongs to President Obama.

In a brief floor speech Monday, House Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) called it "the president's sequester" (or some variant of that) a total of five times; the video posted by his office of the speech is titled "Replacing President Obama's 'Sequester' "; and the speaker's office is out with another statement today on Obama's sequester delay proposal with the subject line "Speaker Boehner Statement on the President’s Sequester."

A couple hours later, meanwhile, Senate Republicans' rapid response team came out with a release titled "Reminder: Sequester ‘Originated In The White House.' "

This isn't an entirely novel strategy. Boehner has made this point before, and in the third presidential debate in late October, Mitt Romney also tried to argue that the sequester was the president's doing. "I will not cut our military budget by a trillion dollars, which is a combination of the budget cuts the president has, as well as the sequestration cuts," Romney said. "That, in my view, is making — is making our future less certain and less secure."

Obama responded: "First of all, the sequester is not something that I’ve proposed. It is something that Congress has proposed. It will not happen."

So who is right?

Well, according to our Washington Post colleague Bob Woodward, the idea did in fact originate in the White House.

Woodward's book about the 2011 debt ceiling crisis says clearly that the idea originated inside the White House, and Woodward later said that Obama's assertion that the idea was proposed by Congress was "not correct” and that "it’s refuted by the people who work for him.”

The Post's fact-checker, Glenn Kessler, awarded Obama four Pinocchios for his claim — a rating that denotes "significant factual error and/or obvious contradictions."

But even if we assume that the idea did originate in the White House, we need to remember one more thing: The debt ceiling agreement that contained the sequestration cuts got significantly more Republican support than Democratic support.

In fact, 174 of 240 House Republicans voted for it, while just half of House Democrats joined them (95 out of 190 votes). In the Senate, Democrats carried the vote, providing 45 of the 74 "yes" votes, but Senate Republicans also supported it by a 28-19 margin.

So in total, more than 70 percent of congressional Republicans voted for the deal that included the sequester, while 58 percent of Democrats voted for it.

In part because of that bipartisan vote, a Romney ad that labeled the sequester as "Obama's defense cuts" was rated only "half true" by Politifact.

Republicans are engaging in smart political strategy. They know that if the sequester cuts go into effect, there will be a huge amount of blame ready to be heaped on whoever is seen as culpable. And by repeatedly referring to the cuts as Obama's idea (something that is technically correct), they are trying to win the war of semantics, which the White House has been more successful at in recent months.

But Democrats have a pretty effective case to make that the GOP owns the sequester just as much as the White House does. After all, Republicans overwhelmingly supported it, and the bill passed with bipartisan support.

And if Congress can't avoid those cuts, there will probably be more than enough blame to go around.

Aaron Blake covers national politics and writes regularly for The Fix, the Post’s top political blog.
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