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January 29, 2013

A Guide to the Sequestration That "Will Not Happen"

Those of you who are following developing news on the sequestration may be suffering from completely understandable confusion. The media and administration (but we repeat ourselves) have been putting out disingenuous and contradictory statements on the topic frequently, sometimes even daily.

Last fall during the third Presidential debate, President Obama laid this stunner on a waiting nation:

“First of all, the sequester is not something that I've proposed. It is something that Congress has proposed. It will not happen."

There is so much wrong with this short statement that it's hard to know where to start. One starting place might be Obama's dishonest disavowal of what an article in yesterday's Washington Post calls, "the origins of the sequester". The Post article goes one step farther than the President, blaming the sequester not just on Congress, but on the GOP-led House:

Origins of the sequester

The sequester is a product of the 2011 fight over the national debt, when the new GOP House majority insisted on spending cuts equal in size to the increase in the federal debt limit. The result: spending caps that would force President Obama to slice $1 trillion from agency budgets over the next decade, along with $1.2 trillion in additional cuts that would hit automatically on Jan. 2, 2013, unless Congress agreed on a plan to replace them.

There's just one problem with this narrative: within days of Obama's dishonest October 22nd statement on the sequester, fact checkers everywhere begged to differ with the President. Politifact rated the President's statement "Mostly False". The Washington Post's own Glenn Kessler awarded Obama Four Pinocchios, cheekily reminding readers that the President's assertion was contradicted by Bob Woodward's White House sanctioned and approved chronicle:

Fortunately, there is a detailed and contemporaneous look at the debt ceiling deal that led to the current budget crunch: Bob Woodward’s “The Price of Politics.” The book clearly had the full cooperation of top White House and congressional officials. With the help of our colleague, we took a tour through the relevant sections in order to determine the accuracy of the president’s statement....

Page 326 (July 26):

At 2:30 p.m., [White House Budget director Jack] Lew and [White House legislative affairs director Rob] Nabors went to the Senate to meet with [Senator Majority Leader Harry] Reid and his chief of staff, David Krone.

“We have an idea for a trigger,” Lew said.

“What’s the idea,” Reid asked skeptically.


Reid bent down and put his head between his knees, almost as if he was going to throw up or was having a heart attack. He sat back up and looked at the ceiling. “A couple of weeks ago,” he said, “my staff said to me that there is one more possible” enforcement mechanism: sequestration. He said he told them, “Get the hell out of here. That’s insane. The White House surely will come up with a plan that will save the day. And you come to me with sequestration?”

Well, it could work, Lew and Nabors explained.

What would the impact be?

They would design it so that half the threatened cuts would be from the Defense Department….The idea was to make all of the threatened cuts so unthinkable and onerous that the supercommittee [tasked with making additional cuts] would do its work and come up with its own deficit reduction plan.Lew and Nabors went through a laundry list of programs that would face cuts.

“This is ridiculous,” Reid said.

That’s the beauty of a sequester, they said, it’s so ridiculous that no one ever wants it to happen. It was the bomb that no one wanted to drop. It actually would be an action-forcing event.

“I get it,” Reid said finally.

It's unclear why the Washington Post's Lori Montgomery attributes "the origins of the sequester" to House Republicans when her own paper (along with numerous other sources) have already
thoroughly debunked the President's dishonest assertion. Such indifference to the historical record is negligent at best. At worst, it is deliberately misleading.

But the "origins" part of the President's sequester statement is not the only one being questioned. There is also Obama's high handed promise that the sequester "will not happen" (something, one must note, that was not actually in his power to prevent unilaterally). Tell that to the Pentagon:

With a six-month fiscal year remaining to implement the first year of sequestration cuts if Congress does not avoid them, and increasing speculation that Congress can’t and won’t, Pentagon planners can no longer afford to ignore the prospect of sequestration as absurd.

And the situation at the sequestration deadline in March will be compounded, Panetta said, by the debt ceiling crisis and the failure of lawmakers to pass the Defense Department’s current-year appropriations bill. Even if the sequester is stopped, operating on a continuing resolution without passage of the spending bill could cost the Pentagon billions, he said.

“The fact is, looking that all three of those (crises), we have no idea what the hell’s going to happen,” Panetta said. “This uncertainty if left unresolved by the congress will seriously harm our military readiness.”

Dempsey was even grimmer.

“This is an irresponsible way to manage our national defense,” he said. “Readiness is what’s now in jeopardy. We’re on the brink of creating a hollow force.”

Early planning shows, Panetta said, that early casualties of the decade-long, $500 billion cut package would be reductions in ship training, in pilot flying hours, and ship maintenance and upkeep. While Panetta and Dempsey said troops deploying to combat zones and those on deck to deploy would be shielded from the cuts, other units would be taxed with cutbacks. And unpaid furloughs for civilian DoD workers would affect everyone in the department–perhaps most significantly regarding health care.

Layoffs of civilian personnel have already begun:

The Pentagon has begun laying off 46,000 contract and temporary civilian employees in an effort to cut back on military spending, the No. 2 Pentagon official said on Friday.

Full time civilian employees, which number in the hundreds of thousands, also will be furloughed for one day a week for 22 weeks, Deputy Defense Secretary Ash Carter said in an interview with wire service reporters.

His comments were confirmed by a Pentagon spokesman.

The moves are part of a Defense Department effort to reduce spending given the potential for billions in mandatory cuts beginning as early as this spring should Congress fail to reach a deal on deficit reduction.

Why is all this happening? It's happening because, contra the President's breezy assertions, there has been no deal to avoid sequestration. Now if you're as confused as I am about who's to blame (or who gets the credit) when Congress either reaches or fails to reach agreements, allow the White House to help you understand.

When Congress does manage to reach bipartisan agreement, the credit does not go to Congress. On the contrary, it's quite plain (at least to hear the White House tell it) that the President's leadership was the moving force:

White House press secretary Jay Carney on Monday welcomed an immigration deal reached by a bipartisan group of senators and gave credit to President Obama for pressing the issue.

"I think it's important before we let the moment pass to acknowledge that the progress we're seeing embodied in the priniciples put forward by this bipartisan group is happening for a reason: I think it's happening because consensus is developing in the country, a bipartisan consensus, and it's happening because the president has demonstrated significant leadership on this issue," Carney said.

Now if the President's leadership is to be credited when Congress reaches agreements, it might logically follow that when Congress does NOT reach agreement, a lack of Presidential leadership might be suspected. Don't be fooled by this so-called "logic". The real culprit is "congressional stupidity":

Congressional stubbornness risks again damaging the fragile economy, just as the nation's near-default in 2011 - the result of a stalemate over raising the national borrowing limit - dealt a nascent economic recovery a setback, the administration official said.

"If you think about the possibility of Congress failing to act to avert the fiscal cliff, combined with the abomination of what occurred in the summer of 2011, hits to our economy aren't coming from external factors, they're coming from congressional stupidity," the official said.

The Federal government has not passed a budget for the entire time Obama has been president. Occasionally, tiny snippets of information accidently escape the media filter:

The U.S. government may default on its debt as soon as Feb. 15, half a month earlier than widely expected, according to a new analysis adding urgency to the debate over how to raise the federal debt ceiling.

The analysis, by the Bipartisan Policy Center, says that the government will be unable to pay all its bills starting sometime between Feb. 15 and March 1.

“Our numbers show that we have less time to solve this problem than many realize,” Steve Bell, senior director of economic policy at the Bipartisan Policy Center, said in a statement. “It will be difficult for Treasury to get beyond the March 1 date in our judgment.”

Now we learn that the Pentagon may not be able to submit a budget on time:

...the Pentagon may not be able to submit its 2014 budget, usually due in the first week of February. The DOD is uncertain as to how to craft that budget with the specter of sequestration looming.

As Harrison explained: “How on earth do you resolve next year’s budget when we haven’t even resolved this year’s budget?”

Defense Secretary Leon Panetta said earlier that as the Pentagon had begun preparing to implement the law, “my concerns about its damaging effects have only grown.”

It seems to me that if the White House authored what Obama himself called a "forcing mechanism" - a fake crisis so awful that "no one wants to see it happen", then the White House needs to do whatever is necessary to ensure that its strategy actually works.

Faced with an ongoing fiscal crisis of gargantuan proportions, President Obama has chosen to exert his unique, self-vaunted brand of Smart Power on the pressing problem of .... immigration reform (with special attention to the treatment of undocumented same sex couples!). But rest assured, if meaningful immigration reform comes to pass, the credit will belong to the White House (and the White House alone). Just as failure to avert the sequester will be placed squarely on the shoulders of the GOP-led House of Representatives.

After all, it's vital that we all play by the same set of rules. It's important to get the facts right:

No one disputes the fact that no one wanted sequestration, or that ultimately a bipartisan vote in Congress led to passage of the Budget Control Act. But the president categorically said that sequestration was “something that Congress has proposed.”

Woodward’s detailed account of meetings during the crisis, clearly based on interviews with key participants and contemporaneous notes, make it clear that sequestration was a proposal advanced and promoted by the White House.

In sum: Gene Sperling brought up the idea of a sequester, while Jack Lew sold Harry Reid on the idea and then decided to use the Gramm-Hollings-Rudman language (which he knew from his days of working for Tip O’Neill) as a template for sequester. The proposal was so unusual for Republicans that staffers had to work through the night to understand it.

Oddly, Lew in Tampa on Thursday, publicly asserted the opposite: “There was an insistence on the part of Republicans in Congress for there to be some automatic trigger…. [It] was very much rooted in the Republican congressional insistence that there be an automatic measure at the end.”

This prompted Woodward to go over his notes and interviews once again, to make sure he had gotten it right.

“After reviewing all the interviews and the extensive material I have on this issue, it looks like President Obama told a whopper,” Woodward said. “Based on what Jack Lew said in Florida today, I have asked the White House to correct the record.”

Posted by Cassandra at January 29, 2013 06:14 PM

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I went to buy a car a while back. The dealer wanted x dollars. I wanted to pay 80% of x. The dealer was too stubborn to let me have my way. I was admirably flexible; I was willing to do any deal that I knew in my heart to be right, despite the dealer's ignorance and greed. In the end, we had to find a price that we both were willing to pay, which I suppose means that I showed leadership by recognizing that I'm not the ruler of the world, and everyone won't do what I say just because I know best.

Posted by: Texan99 at January 30, 2013 10:57 AM

For the life of me, I cannot understand how the media can trumpet Obama's various statements about all the things he "refuses to compromise" (or even negotiate, in some cases!) over ... and then turn right around and inform us that the problem is Republican intransigence.

I'll happily blame Republicans for their share of the problem, but how are we to interpret the fact that the ONE thing Obama INSISTED upon in this last deal was an insignificant and largely illusory tax hike on an extremely small number of taxpayers the entire yearly proceeds of which were spent by the administration before January was even over?:

Remember -- how can any of us forget? -- that long, hard fight President Obama just staged to squeeze more taxes out of wealthy Americans? The top 2% wealthiest already pay 45% of the taxes. But Democrat Obama felt they needed to pay their "fair share," despite the risks that new taxation presents to creating real jobs for the rest of us, Obama already being employed for the next 1,452 days. But who's counting? The Real Big Spender is off to Las Vegas this morning for a $1.5 million-plus photo op day-trip to sell his immigration reform ideas to a select audience that already likes it. For weeks Obama traveled the country telling anyone who would listen and some who'd rather not that he's so absolutely positively determined to cut America's $16.4 trillion national debt that he did so much to grow. And he was insistent on milking money from the rich to do just that. Well guess what?
That $50.4 billion spending bill for, among other things Hurricane Sandy aid, just ate up every single penny of that tax hike for this year, plus another $10 billion. That will go on the debt tab that the $40 billion in new taxes were supposed to start trimming slightly this fiscal year.

These are not serious people.

Posted by: Cass at January 30, 2013 12:02 PM

1.5 million here, 50.4 billion there.

After a while, it starts to add up to real money.

Posted by: Cass at January 30, 2013 12:09 PM

The President refuses to compromise: that's principled.

Republicans refuse to compromise: that's pathology.

It makes total sense if you understand that he's always right and they're always wrong.

I almost prefer it to the President's style of demanding that we shoot ourselves in the head six times, so that he can "compromise" by saying, "OK, just three times."

Posted by: Texan99 at January 30, 2013 04:55 PM

It makes total sense if you understand that he's always right and they're always wrong.

I used to think a lot of the vilification was just due to misunderstanding. I don't believe that anymore - I think most of it is "My guy always gets the benefit of the doubt (IOW, I will actively try to find reasons why whatever he just did is OK) and the other guy is always assumed to have bad motives (IOW, I will actively try to find reasons why the thing he just did - that I just finished defending when my guy did it - is Bad, Evil, and Morally Bankrupt.)

Posted by: Cass at January 31, 2013 06:11 PM

It would be lovely to find a champion in either party who never pursued a goal that I found evil. But I'm just hoping to find one for whom there's a recognizable connection between the aims he espouses and the actions he proposes. I've had about as much as I can take of hearing that one or another politician is evil because he wants life to be horrible for children and puppies. I want to know why he thinks his programs won't make things worse for children and puppies, and then if possible I'd like to be able to follow the argument.

Posted by: Texan99 at February 1, 2013 03:21 PM