As Sequester Crisis Looms, Washington Lawmakers Fight Over Nonsense

02/23/2013 09:18 am ET | Updated Feb 23, 2013

WASHINGTON -- From time to time, our nation's lawmakers must grapple with inalterable necessities. There are deadlines, disasters, looming crises -- some of which arise from circumstances, some of which (the lion's share of this era's, in particular) are hand-made by those tasked with avoiding such catastrophes in the first place. One such necessity is the coming sequestration cuts. Birthed by a law passed by Congress and enacted with President Barack Obama's signature, the "sequester" is a bundle of deep budget cuts that everyone agrees need to be corralled and corrected.

Now, let's all understand that to a certain extent, the direness of the sequester and its deadline has been a bit overstated. The sequester is not a looming cliff or a fiscal guillotine that destroys the economy in one stroke. Rather, once the deadline is breached, that series of cuts gradually goes into effect and begins a long, slow process of wear and tear on the economy. If everyone in Congress spends the next year cradling their junk in their hands with a dumb look on their face, the extraction of capital from the economy will eventually become so massive that it will imperil the economic recovery, and perhaps precipitate a new recession. If our lawmakers choose to act in any sort of timely fashion, we'll be fine. And the current hope is that a deal could be struck to remove the threat altogether.

So the time is definitely ripe for some sort of sequester-stopping activity. And indeed -- while everyone seems to be unable to admit its existence -- the White House has a plan to do just that. Naturally, it's not unreasonable to expect this plan to be subject to a debate. Lots of people say they want to have that debate. But, for whatever reason, even as the deadline draws near, everyone is forgoing that debate to stage another, dumber, utterly useless and irrelevant debate over the sequester's origin story. Instead of actually helping the nation escape the consequences of the self-created mess, everyone's fighting a hot war over trivia.

The GOP has been on a long campaign to make it clear that they are, never, ever, ever, gonna own the sequester. If you've spent any time watching the Sunday shows, this has become tedious to the point of delirium, as everyone recited the same talking points that it's "Obama's sequester." House Speaker John Boehner has launched one of those periodic hashtag battles, where he is trying to make "#obamaquester" happen, which is a dubious gambit for a number of reasons: the hashtag is #stupid, and it's only really reaching the already-politically engaged base of conservatives on Twitter, who are already fairly convinced that everything is Obama's fault at all times.

GOP complainants point to the account of the sequester's origins that are documented in Bob Woodward's book, The Price Of Politics, specifically a scene in which Jack Lew introduces the idea of the sequester to Harry Reid and other Democratic negotiators:

"We have an idea for the trigger," [then-Chief-of-Staff Jack] Lew said.

"What's the idea?" Reid asked skeptically.

"Sequestration."

Reid bent down and put his head between his knees, almost as if he were going to throw up.

More recently, the president's allies have countered with a PowerPoint presentation, unearthed by The Daily Beast's John Avlon, that Boehner presented to House Republicans in an effort to get them to embrace the plan.

Now, Dave Weigel has many, many more details of both this big origin-story fight, and the actual origins of the sequester, so click on over and get some knowledge. Alternatively, you can have Kate Upton and Ryan Gosling explain it to you. Pick your poison! My point is this: This is the dumbest debate in the world to stage, at this time or any time, because there's really nothing to debate -- all the complainants are technically right, and the more important thing is that everyone already has a perfectly fine working understanding of how the sequester found its way into our lives.

But let's review! Anyone who has been paying attention to the overall budget battle, and who has a basic understanding of how a bill becomes a law, understands that the sequester's origins come from all sides, working in concert with one another. Regardless of who came up with the sequester (and the salient thing to remember about Avlon's PowerPoint is that it does not prove that the sequester originated with the GOP), the facts are these. Lots of Republicans voted for the Budget Control Act. Their votes ensured that it came to Obama's desk. There, Obama signed it. And that's how laws are made.

More broadly, however, we can trace the actual origins of the sequester as the culmination of many years of legislative incompetence, which brought us to the point where everyone thought that the only way to resolve the impasse on the deficit was to hang the Sword of Damocles over the heads of a group of lawmakers that had to come to terms by a deadline or else -- whoosh! -- the sword falls and takes a heaping chunk out of the Pentagon's budget, along with a deadly slice from the domestic discretionary budget.

It went like this. There was a dream, it was called the Senate Deficit Commission. It died. It died because its GOP co-sponsors abandoned it in the eleventh hour. That might have been for the best -- by design, it required an almost-certainly insurmountable supermajority to pass any sort of "deficit plan." But because there was such a demand for some sort of "commission," President Obama went out and asked Alan Simpson and Erskine Bowles to chair a new committee. That committee would be bipartisan. It featured current lawmakers, and old wise heads. It, too, had an almost-certainly insurmountable supermajority requirement. It too, failed.

At this point, the demand for action on "the deficits" got coupled with another dire matter, the debt ceiling, which needed to be raised to avoid default. Republicans had forced the president into a hostage-taking situation: "Come to terms or we breach the debt ceiling." The Budget Control Act was born from that blackmail -- it got the debt ceiling raised, created the Super Committee, and imposed the sequester. Obama signed it. And the GOP elaborately praised it.

Paul Ryan, the de facto spokesman of the GOP on all matters pertaining to the budget, operatically hailed the bill as a massive culture-changer for Washington, a hallmark achivement of "bipartisanship," and specifically singled out the defense side of the sequester as something that should give "comfort" to his Democratic colleagues:

To my friends on the left, I think they would like to take comfort in the fact the way these spending cuts are designed and the way the sequester is designed.

Ryan's crystal-clear message to the lawmakers across the aisle: "Take heart. That we are prepared to risk massive cuts to defense should prove to you that we are serious about this."

This is the "origin of the sequester." Both practically, and philosophically, it's something that all parties created together, agreed to enact, and embraced as they all jumped off the cliff. In general, you can just blame everyone.

If you have to get particular, however, let's remember that none of this would have happened if everyone had just conducted themselves rationally during the debt-ceiling debate. Previously in human history, the way debt ceiling debates went, is that if the president's opponents in Congress gave even a mild thought to taking the debt ceiling hostage, the President would say, "Nuh-uh. Homey don't play that. Feel free to pick your most histrionic fellows to pitch a fit on C-SPAN and cast your protest votes, but you put a clean debt ceiling bill on my desk. There will be no negotiating." The GOP's decision to go through with the hostage crisis is one of the reasons the sequester is happening.

And naturally, while most people play the "both sides do it" card by inventing a reality in which Obama has failed to properly negotiate with the GOP, I'll point out that Obama erred by agreeing to do too much negotiating. He expressed an openness to using the occasion of the debt ceiling raise as a moment to do some grand bargaining. That, obviously, turned out to be a mistake. He's since, shrewdly, reverted to the "Homey don't play that" method of forestalling such debacles, and I bet he wishes he hadn't opted for something different way back when.

Significantly, we should remember that when Obama was a senator, he was one of those histrionic legislators throwing a protest vote at the other party's president. So, perhaps his willingness to bargain over the debt ceiling was born out of some desire to be internally consistent. For my part, I sort of wish Obama had greeted the whole Budget Control Act with at least some kind of admonition. "You guys realize you're asking me to let you do the thing you keep failing at doing, and you guys are calling yourselves the 'Super Committee' on top of that? I'm really not sure about this." I know that Obama's brand is "hopeful" and "tone-changing" and "gentlemanly compromise," but there are times when I wish he had a healthy cynicism gland to inject ennui and doubt into his bloodstream.

Of course, he might be starting to grow one of those.

See, the sequestration is far from the only manifestly silly fight that we're having in Washington, at the expense of actually achieving something. Elsewhere in the halls of Congress, there is a Gang Of Eight(ish) studiously attempting to create a bipartisan framework for a comprehensive immigration reform bill. Both parties have their motivations. For the Democrats, it's the need to redeem all the support that Hispanic voters gave them in the 2012 election cycle. For the Republicans, it's the need to restore their brand by making overtures to the same Hispanic voters, in the hopes of breaking the iron-lock the Democrats have recently had on their affections.

In general, there are high hopes that this effort will succeed, and Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) has done yeoman's work, trading on his credibility with right-wing pundits in an effort to marshal, if not their support, at least some benefit of the doubt. But if you're Obama, you've seen what various "Gangs of [X]" have been historically able to do, and you start developing a back-up plan. And once word got out that the White House was working on such a back-up plan, a wild freakout ensued. Rubio got his back up, called the leaked draft of what the White House was working on "half-baked" and warned that it would be "dead on arrival" if it came to Congress. There were hurt feelings and complaints that the president was undermining the Gang's process.

But the point was that history teaches us that Congress has lately been the brilliant ally of its own demise, perfectly capable of undermining its own work. (And the simple fact that Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.), devoted scuttler of deals great and small, was part of the Gang was reason enough to guard against the eventuality of failure.) The good news is that after several days of complaining, replete with Sunday morning spleen-venting, everyone got sorted out. Rifts were mended, compliments extended, and the kingdom was peaceable once more. But why fly off the handle in the first place? So what if the president's got his own plan brewing? Tend to your knitting, get your work done, and make the White House's effort a moot point.

This immigration reform flare-up is of a piece with so many other pointless Beltway contretemps. If the president isn't involved in the process of legislative negotiating, then he's failing to lead. The moment he gets involved, he's mucking up the legislative negotiating. And if he's particularly insistent on doing something, then he's trying to "cram __________ down the American people's throats." How is the president supposed to proceed?

All that shouting may do wonders for maintaining tribal bravado, but it's a thoroughly unproductive expense of spirit and a waste of shame. But these ticky-tack debates, elevated to melodramatic levels of high-dudgeon, have become the default setting. Get the stink of some contentious, trivial matter into their nostrils and suddenly everyone's enjoined in a rabid fracas.

So we continue to have angry garble-spats over Susan Rice's Benghazi ancient Sunday-show talking points. Along with histrionic feuds over who's working on what immigration deal. And finally, a massive caterwaul over establishing the correct origin story of the sequester -- when everyone with a newspaper and a fourth-grade education knows damned well how it came to be. And by the way, don't you guys keep saying that it's going to be the death of all things? If that's true, shut up and follow the advice of Kenan Thompson's "Oscar Rogers" character:

Look, I understand. History is written by the winners, and it's good to have your story in place. But I've been watching these processes drag on for years now, and I got news for you, lawmakers. Y'all aint won nothing in a good long time. So stop the tacky spats and the attempts to rewrite history, and get back to work.

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