One of the more inconvenient stumbling blocks for the President’s sequestration narrative is that Bob Woodward – the Spartacus of the Beltway journalistic arena – isn’t buying it. He’s been consistently reminding readers of the Washington Post how all this got started, and while it’s hardly a flattering tale for Republican negotiators, it hurts Obama more:
A majority of Republicans did vote for the Budget Control Act that summer, which included the sequester. Key Republican staffers said they didn’t even initially know what a sequester was — because the concept stemmed from the budget wars of the 1980s, when they were not in government.
At the Feb. 13 Senate Finance Committee hearing on Lew’s nomination to become Treasury secretary, Sen. Richard Burr (R-N.C.) asked Lew about the account in my book: “Woodward credits you with originating the plan for sequestration. Was he right or wrong?”
“It’s a little more complicated than that,” Lew responded, “and even in his account, it was a little more complicated than that. We were in a negotiation where the failure would have meant the default of the government of the United States.”
“Did you make the suggestion?” Burr asked.
“Well, what I did was said that with all other options closed, we needed to look for an option where we could agree on how to resolve our differences. And we went back to the 1984 plan that Senator [Phil] Gramm and Senator [Warren] Rudman worked on and said that that would be a basis for having a consequence that would be so unacceptable to everyone that we would be able to get action.”
Snarks Woodward: “In other words, yes.” On the bright side, at least we finally have evidence that Team Obama learned something from the 1980s.
Woodward goes on to chronicle some increasingly lawyered, squirmy, and (as Woodward puts it bluntly) “not accurate” statements from Lew and other Administration figures about the origins of sequestration. At its heart, this is a fairly simple story about using Big Government muscle to squeeze more taxes out of the American people. The Republicans were supposed to cave at the Super Committee deficit-cutting table; they didn’t, so the current theatrics are Obama’s Plan B. Woodward quotes a senior White House official saying as much: “The sequester was an option we were forced to take because the Republicans would not do tax increases.” The volume of obfuscation and evasion necessary to conceal this simple storyline from the American public has reached suffocating proportions.
Woodward’s still plenty liberal – he thinks Obama has “a strong case that those in the top income brackets could and should pay more” – but he’s admirably constant in his insistence that the true story of the Budget Control Act of 2011 be told. A deal was made, and Obama has broken it. Personally, I spent the 2011 debt ceiling crisis expressing various levels of derision toward the evolving Budget Control Act precisely because I knew Obama, and Washington as an institution, would never keep such a deal, and it wasn’t much of a deal in the first place.
The only real ways to rein in this out-of-control system are to either forbid it to incur more debt (i.e. don’t raise the debt ceiling any more) or pass something like the Cut, Cap, and Balance Act. Ideally, we should do both – we need to make the current unsustainable national debt smaller, while building a private sector strong and free enough to pay for reformed, sustainable versions of entitlement programs like Social Security and Medicare. Restraints Washington makes vague promises of implementing later are not worth the paper they’re scribbled on, even when “later” is only a few months – and one crucial election – away.