Sequester Stupidity

Next week, the "sequester," a package of severe cuts to government spending, will take effect. Although the consequences won't all be felt the first day, they will come fairly quickly, and they'll be painful. Not only to people on an individual basis—say if you're one of the thousands of government employees being furloughed, or when you're waiting in longer lines at the airport—but to the broader economy as all these effects begin to ripple outward. And so, the administration and Congress are engaging in what surely looks to most Americans like a spectacularly idiotic argument about whose fault it is. But before we start blaming both sides equally for indulging in a battle over blame, we have to be clear on who's to blame for all the blaming. The truth is that while both sides are trying to spin things their way, there's a difference in how each is talking about the sequester.

President Obama's principal argument is this: The sequester is a really bad thing, so Congress needs to stop it. He's out posing with first responders, detailing the cuts that will take place and the problems that will ensue, and generally trying to put pressure on Republicans to walk us back from this cliff. Does he want them to get the blame when it happens? Of course. But his main argument is about the practical consequences of the cuts, made in an attempt to avert the cuts from happening.

Republicans, on the other hand, aren't spending much time talking about the consequences of the sequester. Yes, they'll decry the defense cuts, but that's almost throat-clearing before they get to their main argument, which is: This is all Barack Obama's fault. They created a Twitter hashtag, #Obamaquester, to make sure everyone knows whose fault it is. They're holding press conferences with that hashtag on big signs. The instruction has obviously gone out to every Republican that the most important thing to repeat when talking about this issue is that it was all Obama's idea, so there. John Boehner has an op-ed in today's Wall Street Journal going on at some length about how Republicans had nothing to do with it (Steve Benen does the yeoman's work of going through Boehner's piece line-by-line to document all the absurd falsehoods contained therein).

On the question of who's idea it was, the basic answer is that it appears it came from the White House initially. But the real answer is, who cares who thought of it first? It came about because Republicans had taken the American economy hostage over the debt ceiling, and the whole idea was that it contained cuts everybody would find unacceptable, so in order to avoid it Congress would come up with a more considered deficit reduction package. They didn't, and here we are. Whether the idea first popped into Jack Lew's head, or somebody else's, is utterly irrelevant, because both sides negotiated its details and agreed to its final form.

So not only are the Republicans making a silly argument, from a purely political standpoint, the American people are likely to hold them responsible for this, for a few reasons. First, Republicans are the ones who always want to cut government spending and always accuse the Democrats of favoring too much spending, so nobody's going to believe them when they say, "These spending cuts are Obama's fault!" Second, Barack Obama is reasonably popular right now, while Congress has an approval rating hovering somewhere between hangnails and Jerry Sandusky. And third, this whole governing-by-manufactured-crisis insanity was their doing from the beginning; we all watched them take the economy hostage before, and now they're doing it again.

For the record, there is a simple solution to the problem of the sequester: Congress should pass a law eliminating it. Not replacing it with a bunch of other budget cuts, not engaging in a new game of chicken, not putting it off for a month or two, not having a bunch of proposals and counter-proposals, just cancelling it, period. Then once that's done, you can start the budget process for real, not because there's a disaster of Congress' own making looming in a week, but through the ordinary legislative process. If you're holding a gun to the American economy's head, the first thing to do is put down the gun.

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