During the epic deficits-and-debt donnybrook of mid-2011, two top aides to President Barack Obama proposed an ultimatum so onerous that Congress and the White House surely wouldn’t let it happen.
In his book “The Price of Politics,” Bob Woodward of The Washington Post recounted how Jack Lew, then director of Obama’s Office of Management and Budget, and Rob Nabors, the president’s legislative affairs director, brought the notion of a “sequester” to Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid mid-afternoon July 27, 2011. As the idea rapidly evolved: A failure of Congress (via its “supercommittee”) and the White House to agree on substantial deficit reductions would trigger automatic, across-the-board budget cuts.
Members of both parties voted for that provision and Obama signed it into law. But the New Year’s 2013 deal that raised taxes to avoid the “fiscal cliff” also delayed the sequester’s impact — $85 billion over the rest of this fiscal year — until March 1. Democrats expected all along that some agreement would exterminate the sequester and preserve full funding to politically popular domestic programs. They also assumed that Republicans wouldn’t permit the sequester’s deep cuts to defense spending. Instead, Republicans now seem resigned to the reality that across-the-board cuts are better than no cuts, or new tax increases.
Yet with Congress and the White House having demonstrated for nearly two years that scheduled delays do not yield real progress on deficits and debt, Obama on Tuesday said he wants yet another delay, this one for the rest of the year. Standing before firefighters and other first responders, a perturbed Obama warned Americans of the sequester’s impacts: less FBI and border patrol protection, layoffs for “thousands of teachers,” reduced access to cancer screenings and child care, and so on.
This was dramatic stuff, but peculiar too: With the Congressional Budget Office this month saying the government is on track to grow its debt by some $6 trillion to $9 trillion over the next decade, Obama was threatening dire consequences if total spending falls by a comparatively small $1.2 trillion over that time.
His obvious intent is to have members of Congress face complaints about sequester cuts while they’re home on vacation this week. And who knows? Maybe we will see noisy throngs nationwide demand more spending. Or maybe not. Many millions of Americans want federal spending cut far more deeply than $1.2 trillion over 10 years.
What’s most immediately at stake is Obama’s credibility. He talks often about the need to reduce federal deficits; you could be forgiven for concluding that he would see the sequester as a preordained way to start that crucial process. But in last week’s State of the Union address and other recent appearances, he has offered fewer specifics on curtailing federal borrowing and spending than he has on raising more revenues and creating new programs.
Republicans counter that they caved to allow tax increases on the wealthy in the fiscal cliff deal, so now it’s time for Democrats to similarly agree to the spending cuts that deal postponed — either the sequester or some equivalent. They also note that House Republicans last year passed alternative cuts that would replace the sequester, but Senate Democrats weren’t interested.
Obama’s cred also suffers because those Senate Dems have gone four years without passing a federal budget. After a companion four years of trillion-dollar deficits and no Democratic plan to rescue imperiled entitlement programs, why should Republicans trust that one more delay will inspire the White House and Senate to someday deliver real spending reforms?
Tuesday wasn’t a total washout. Erskine Bowles, former chief of staff to President Bill Clinton, and Alan Simpson, former Republican senator from Wyoming, floated a new framework for cutting deficits by $2.4 trillion over 10 years — just enough, probably, to finally put our national debt on a downward trajectory. The former co-chairs of the president’s 2010 debt commission keep urging official Washington to stop bickering — and stop letting party politics block reforms.
This new Simpson-Bowles proposal, details to come, still is a mix of revenue hikes and spending reductions. Yet given Washington’s current gridlock, even Bowles was pessimistic about the likelihood of a “grand bargain.” Simpson added that if the president “doesn’t get a handle on entitlements and the solvency of Social Security, he will have a failed presidency. I don’t think he wants that at all. He’s too smart.”
Yes, he is smart. But as March 1 approaches, Obama looks sequestered — in denial of America’s debt crisis, and in denial of the consequence his White House proposed.