The threat of the looming sequester is a genuinely good reason to get very stressed out about what might happen to the domestic discretionary budget and the vulnerable Americans who are served by any number of important services. But there seems to be no one who is suffering from outright Sequestration Derangement as badly as Bob Woodward. That unraveling hit an apotheosis today, when he went on the "Morning Joe" program and seemingly forgot that our nation is nominally governed by the rule of law.
Woodward has been dining out lately on the little scooplet from his book The Price Of Politics that places the germination for the whole sequester idea in the mind of Jack Lew, and the subsequent reward for earning that scooplet has been the way he's been constantly invited to opine on the matter in print and on the teevee. But his subsequent performances have basically demonstrated that he does not actually understand the sequester all that well. But now his misunderstandings have proceeded from the merely embarrassing to something downright disturbing.
Over the weekend, he got slapped up and down pretty convincingly after claiming that Obama's desire for a so-called balanced approach (spending cuts and revenue raising) to mitigate the sequester was "moving the goalposts." What Woodward failed to consider was that the whole point of the sequester-as-enforcement-mechanism was to replace the enforcement mechanism with something else -- and that the Budget Control Act both invited and anticipated a "balanced approach."
As Brian Beutler pointed out, the "bill even provided the House and Senate instructions for advancing a Super Committee bill if it included revenue." This is not hard to understand. One need only read the bill.
But as bad as Woodward's failure to understand the Budget Control Act was, it pales in comparison to Wednesday's appearance on "Morning Joe," where Woodward just said that Obama should essentially chuck the law passed by Congress, and which he signed, in the bin and overcome the sequester with pure and simple illegality.
"Can you imagine Ronald Reagan sitting there saying, 'Oh, by the way, I can't do this because of some budget document?'" Woodward said on MSNBC's "Morning Joe." "Or George W. Bush saying, 'You know, I'm not gonna invade Iraq, because I can't get the aircraft carriers I need?' Or even Bill Clinton saying, 'You know, I'm not going to attack Saddam Hussein's intelligence headquarters' -- as he did when Clinton was President -- because of some budget document? Under the Constitution, the President is Commander in Chief and employs the force. And so we now have the President going out, because of this piece of paper and this agreement, I can't do what I need to do to protect the country. That's a kind of madness that I haven't seen in a long time."
Well, as it happens, Article One, Section 8 of the U.S. Constitution actually does stipulate that Congress has the power to declare war. But in this day and age, that's become a quaint notion, trampled underfoot by expanding executive power and the shifting definition of "war." That said, if Congress wanted to defund the War in Afghanistan today, and they had the votes to override a presidential veto, then the very scenario Woodward declares to be beyond human imagination would, in fact, be reality.
But more to the point, what Woodward dismissively (and, frankly, frighteningly) refers to as "this piece of paper and this agreement" is the official law of the land. Congress passed it. The president signed it. It happened. It's happening. It's the rock in the road that you can't get around. In recent years, presidents may have claimed a certain amount of leeway in interpreting the bills passed by Congress in the form of signing statements. But signing statements are generally considered to be a sort of cheap trick -- and at any rate, I can't imagine that "if the day comes that this law just becomes too hard, I reserve the right to completely ignore it" would actually fly as a signing statement.
Now, I have a certain amount of sympathy for Woodward, who is all worked up over the fact that the Obama administration has made a big deal of pointing out that, with the sequester imposed, aircraft carriers scheduled to be deployed to the Persian Gulf will sit "idle." (It's a weird thing for Woodward to be concerned with, since the more immediate and dangerous impact of the sequester will be how it affects working- and middle-class Americans, but the media has sort of thrown the domestic impacts of the sequester down the memory hole.) So let's call the aircraft carrier melodrama what it is: cheap theatrics designed both to stoke worry and compel the defense-hawks in the GOP ranks to come to the table and broker a deal.
The problem is what Woodward thinks Obama should do in lieu of cheap theatrics. I am uniquely puzzled by Woodward's contention that the right and proper thing for Obama to do now is to ignore the law unilaterally. What member of Congress would accept that? Who (besides Woodward) would embrace the precedent? Heck, why would Woodward embrace this? Isn't he famous for investigating the Nixon administration's abuses of power, for Pete's sake?
The good news is that no one needs to seize dictatorial power to solve the sequester. (And I for one hope that when some would-be dictator decides to seize power and supplant Congress' authority, they have greater and more exciting ambitions than getting a really fiscally prudent 20-year budget trajectory.) Obama has a plan right now to offset the sequester. Congress could embrace it and start working on its passage right now. Alternatively, they could debate the merits of Obama's proposal and come to a different deal. The "piece of paper and agreement" can be replaced by a whole new "piece of paper and agreement," through traditional, legal means.
But seriously, suggesting that the president should just unilaterally ignore the law because it's really unpleasant is the real "madness" here.
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