The longtime Washington Post reporter and author of The Price of Politics, an insider account of the the wrangling between the White House and Congress during Obama’s first term, cleared the air about the looming budget sequester in a recent column:
The finger-pointing began during the third presidential debate last fall, on Oct. 22, when President Obama blamed Congress. “The sequester is not something that I’ve proposed,” Obama said. “It is something that Congress has proposed.”
The White House chief of staff at the time, Jack Lew, who had been budget director during the negotiations that set up the sequester in 2011, backed up the president two days later.
“There was an insistence on the part of Republicans in Congress for there to be some automatic trigger,” Lew said while campaigning in Florida. It “was very much rooted in the Republican congressional insistence that there be an automatic measure.”
The president and Lew had this wrong. My extensive reporting for my book “The Price of Politics” shows that the automatic spending cuts were initiated by the White House and were the brainchild of Lew and White House congressional relations chief Rob Nabors — probably the foremost experts on budget issues in the senior ranks of the federal government.
Obama personally approved of the plan for Lew and Nabors to propose the sequester to Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.). They did so at 2:30 p.m. July 27, 2011, according to interviews with two senior White House aides who were directly involved.
Nabors has told others that they checked with the president before going to see Reid. A mandatory sequester was the only action-forcing mechanism they could devise. Nabors has said, “We didn’t actually think it would be that hard to convince them” — Reid and the Republicans — to adopt the sequester. “It really was the only thing we had. There was not a lot of other options left on the table.”
As Woodward notes: “(The) months of White House dissembling further eroded any semblance of trust between Obama and congressional Republicans.”
UPDATE: Woodward’s op-ed has caused some consternation on the web. Slate’s Dave Weigel has a post up called: “How Bob Woodward’s Book Debunks His Big Washington Post Op-Ed.” Talking Point Memo’s Brian Beutler has one up called: “Woodward Misses The Mark.” Both try to downplay the points Woodward makes. Neither is very convincing.
As Beutler puts it:
Woodward’s book about the debt limit crisis includes the fairly inconsequential detail that the idea of using sequestration (as opposed to other policy options) as an enforcement mechanism originated in the White House. Republicans, who voted for the Budget Control Act in overwhelming numbers, argue flimsily that this detail absolves them of all blame for the coming spending cuts, and have since tried to turn Woodward into a sort of grand arbiter of the debt limit fight.
But in this case Woodward is just dead wrong. Obama and Democrats have always insisted that a balanced mix of spending cuts and higher taxes replace sequestration. It’s true that John Boehner wouldn’t agree to include new taxes in the enforcement mechanism itself, and thus that the enforcement mechanism he and Obama settled upon — sequestration — is composed exclusively of spending cuts. But the entire purpose of an enforcement mechanism is to make sure that the enforcement mechanism is never triggered. The key question is what action it was designed to compel. And on that score, the Budget Control Act is unambiguous. (Emphasis added.)
Two points: First, the origin of the sequester is not a “fairly inconsequential detail” if the White House has been regularly distorting the truth about it, as Woodward shows. I mean, if it is inconsequential, then why bother misleading the public in the first place? No, they are doing that because they don’t want people to understand how this situation came to pass. Granted, the Republicans voted for it as well, so they are not blameless. But that is not the point. The point is the White House has said this was the GOP’s idea in an effort to dodge blame for it.
Second, the argument that the sequester was never intended by the White House to actually happen does not absolve them from creating it in the first place. As Beutler notes they could have tried some “other policy options”. They decided on this instead. Yes, they pitched the idea to the Republicans because they thought it would never come to pass. They thought the possibility of defense cuts would force the GOP to accept tax hikes. It now appears that the White House was wrong on that. A person who gambles and loses is still responsible for his losses now matter how much he intended to win.