White House did initiate automatic spending cuts

2013-02-26T00:00:00Z White House did initiate automatic spending cutsBob Woodward The Washington Post Arizona Daily Star
February 26, 2013 12:00 am  • 

Misunderstanding, misstatements and all the classic contortions of partisan message management surround the sequester, the term for the $85 billion in ugly and largely irrational federal spending cuts set by law to begin Friday.

What is the non-budget wonk to make of this?

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.

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.

Obama personally approved of the plan for Lew and Nabors to propose the sequester to Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev.

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.

A majority of Republicans did vote for the Budget Control Act, which included the sequester.

At the Feb. 13 Senate Finance Committee hearing on Lew's nomination to become treasury secretary, Sen. Richard Burr, R-N.C., asked Lew about the account in my book: "Woodward credits you with originating the plan for sequestration. Was he right or wrong?"

"It's a little more complicated than that," Lew responded.

"Did you make the suggestion?" Burr asked.

"Well, what I did was said that with all other options closed, we needed to look for an option where we could agree on how to resolve our differences ... a basis for having a consequence that would be so unacceptable to everyone that we would be able to get action."

In other words, yes.

But then Burr asked about the president's statement during the presidential debate, that the Republicans originated it.

Lew, being a good lawyer and a loyal presidential adviser, then shifted to denial mode: "Senator, the demand for an enforcement mechanism was not something that the administration was pushing at that moment."

That statement was not accurate.

On Tuesday, Obama appeared at the White House with a group of police officers and firefighters to denounce the sequester as a "meat-cleaver approach" that would jeopardize military readiness and investments in education, energy and readiness. He also said, the substitute would have to include new revenue through tax reform.

At noon that same day, White House press secretary Jay Carney shifted position and accepted sequester paternity, an acknowledgment that the president and Lew had been wrong.

Why does this matter?

First, months of White House dissembling further eroded any semblance of trust between Obama and congressional Republicans.

Second, Lew testified during his confirmation hearing that the Republicans would not go along with new revenue in the portion of the deficit-reduction plan that became the sequester.

The final deal reached between Vice President Joe Biden and Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., in 2011 included an agreement that there would be no tax increases in the sequester in exchange for what the president was insisting on: an agreement that the debt ceiling would be increased for 18 months, so Obama would not have to negotiate when he was running for reelection.

When the president asks that a substitute for the sequester include new revenue, he is moving the goal posts. His call for a balanced approach is reasonable, but that was not the deal he made.

Bob Woodward is an associate editor of The Washington Post. His assistant, Evelyn M. Duffy, contributed to this commentary.

Copyright 2014 Arizona Daily Star. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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