The blame game is a dreary and generally unproductive exercise. But as Washington slouches toward the self-inflicted wound of the budget sequester, Republicans’ determined effort to rewrite the history of debt reduction requires correcting.
My short version of apportioning blame for the current mess is this: The Obama administration is guilty of bad negotiating in pursuit of sensible policy. Congressional Republicans are guilty of exploiting the president’s bad negotiating in pursuit of terrible policy.
Let’s quickly dispense with the sideshow of the sequester’s parentage. It makes no difference, no matter how many times Republicans decry “the president’s sequester.”
First, the Obama administration came up with the mechanism precisely because Republicans deemed unacceptable a sequester that included automatic increases in tax revenue.
The underlying concept, from Democrats’ view, was never to implement the $1.2 trillion through spending cuts alone. Rather, the threat of sequester was to be leverage for a blend of spending cuts and tax increases. Sequester is happening because Republicans in the supercommittee balked at raising adequate revenue.
Second, no matter whose brainchild it was, Republicans voted for a deal that included the sequester as the enforcement mechanism. They can’t now disown their vote by insisting it was the other guy’s idea.
So how did we arrive at sequester’s doorstep?
Republicans’ truncated version of history would have time begin with last year’s deal on the “fiscal cliff.” In this account, Republicans gave in on tax revenue then, agreeing to raise rates on the tiniest sliver of taxpayers -- households making more than $450,000 a year in exchange for making the Bush tax cuts permanent for everyone else.
The bottom line, compared to extending the tax cuts in their entirety, is another $620 billion in revenue over 10 years, $737 billion when interest savings on the lower debt are taken into account. This concession is now deemed to be the end of the tax affair.
“The tax debate is now closed,” House Speaker John Boehner proclaimed in The Wall Street Journal.
But why? The deal that Boehner asserts closed the tax debate involved less revenue than the $800 billion he was willing to ante up as part of the debt-ceiling negotiations in 2011. It involved less revenue than the $1 trillion he was offering last December in the cliff talks. By way of comparison, the original Simpson-Bowles plan called for more than $2 trillion in new revenue.
For Republicans to now claim that the $620 billion agreement was the final word on taxes is like my daughters arguing that, because they finished some of their homework before going to the mall, they don’t need to complete the rest of the assignment. The homework debate, ladies, is not closed.
The Republican argument -- we gave on taxes, now it’s time for spending cuts -- also ignores the full history of spending cuts. The debt-ceiling deal -- the one that created the supercommittee and sequester -- also locked in $917 billion in spending cuts.
When Republicans argue that the additional $1.2 trillion in savings must come entirely from spending, with no new revenue, they conveniently forget the cuts already enacted.
The Obama administration’s argument that the next $1.2 trillion-plus should come from a mix of spending cuts and new revenue looks a lot more reasonable when you recognize that the majority of debt reduction has already occurred on the spending side.
Which brings me to the administration’s fault in this mess: squandering its leverage on taxes when it accepted the cliff deal. In the administration’s imagining, this money was just chapter one; the second wave would come with another $600 billion or so through tax reform.
Except the White House seems to have forgotten to ask Republicans about whether they were up for more. The threat of sequester has turned out to be less scary than the hammer of tax increases for all. That crisis averted, and the GOP base unhappy with the increases already passed, Republicans’ incentive to cough up more revenue has evaporated.
White House officials argue that this assessment fails to take into account the parallel achievement of dealing with the debt ceiling. But Republicans never wanted to rerun that risky play. The White House also predicts that Republicans, having capitulated on the debt ceiling and on tax rates, will capitulate a third time, on additional revenue.
I hope to be proved wrong. But I see no indication from Republicans that such a shift, however wise, is in the cards.