This week, as across-the-board budget cuts are set to slash programs both Republicans and Democrats hold dear, there's a fierce debate raging in Washington.
But the debate is not over how to avert the dreaded cuts: It's about who's to blame.
While President Obama continues to argue that it's within Republican hands to stop the series of cuts to defense and domestic discretionary programs set to take effect at the end of the week, GOP leaders have sought to rebut this claim by arguing the sequester was Obama's idea in the first place. The conservative case gained some credence over the weekend as Bob Woodward--hardly a right-wing ideologue--argued that members of the President's brain trust, namely Jack Lew and Rob Nabors, devised the sequester in 2011 as a negotiating tactic to force both parties to come to the table and devise a rational plan for deficit reduction rather than a shotgun wedding of a deal under the shadow of the impending debt ceiling. It was, in other words, the President's proposal.
But this line of thinking omits an important fact: Without Tea Party-fueled deficit hysteria, there would be no debt ceiling crisis--let alone a sequester.
Before Republicans took control of Congress in 2011, policymakers' focus was squarely on job creation rather than deficit reduction. Sequester-style policies were not even in the realm of possibility.
And for good reason: Unemployment was--as it still is--an underlying cause of government borrowing. Massive layoffs in the wake of the 2008 crisis left us with fewer people contributing to the tax base and more people in need of federal assistance. You need not be an old-school Keynesian to believe that it makes sense to spend money on ultimately obligatory public projects--repairing bridges, maintaining electrical grids, fixing sewage treatment systems--at a time when interest rates are at rock bottom and unemployment at painfully stratospheric heights.
It was a heady cocktail of fiscal dogma (government spending is never the answer), persistent paranoia (bond vigilantes will attack at any moment unless we bring down the debt-to-GDP ratio), and cynical politics (deny the President any accomplishments in the run-up to the election) that inspired this dramatic defiance of common sense. Yet the defiance continues. And--with the likely onset of the sequester this at the end of this week--these terribly wrongheaded ideas may soon have their most serious consequences to date.
While the President has proposed to stop the sequester by closing three specific tax loopholes primarily for multinational corporations and private equity managers, the only Republican counteroffer is to soften sequestration's impact on Pentagon spending by making even deeper cuts to education, mental health services, workforce training, and nutritional assistant to women, children, and seniors.
It's yet another thing to pretend it wasn't their idea.
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