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Whose Idea Was Sequestration?

Republicans and Democrats Blame Each Other for 2013 Sequestration


President Barack Obama

President Barack Obama signs the Budget Control Act of 2011 in the Oval Office, Aug. 2, 2011.

Official White House Photo/Pete Souza

Whose idea was sequestration? It depends on who you asked, and when you asked the question.

When the idea of sequestration was first proposed and included in the Budget Control Act of 2011 to encourage Congress to reduce the federal deficit by $1.2 trillion by the end of 2012, the White House and Republican lawmakers alike praised the mechanism.

But they began backpedaling in late 2012 and 2013 when it became clear a polarized Congress would not be able to reach a grand bargain on deficit reduction and deep cuts in important federal programs, including defense, would occur.

White House Praises Sequestration in 2011

Even though Republicans and Democrats blamed each other and tried to distance themselves from the sequestration cuts in 2013, leaders of both parties initially praised the idea of mandatory spending cuts when they were initially proposed and signed into law.

The Obama White House, for example, described the bipartisan debt deal that included sequestration as "a win for the economy and budget discipline." The Obama administration described sequestration specifically as a "strong enforcement mechanism to make all sides come together."

"The Bush tax cuts expire as of 1/1/2013, the same date that the spending sequester would go into effect. These two events together will force balanced deficit reduction. Absent a balanced deal, it would enable the President to use his veto pen to ensure nearly $1 trillion in additional deficit reduction by not extending the high-income tax cuts."

Obama Blames Republicans

As the sequestration cuts became closer to reality in 2013, Obama began describing the mechanism as a "meat-cleaver approach" approach to deficit reduction that would cripple the economy and result in middle-class job losses. He had already begun blaming Republicans for the automatic cuts.

At one of the 2012 presidential debates, Obama claimed no responsibility for sequestration and instead blamed congressional budget negotiators.

"The sequester is not something that I’ve proposed," Obama said at a debate with Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney on Oct. 22, 2012. "It is something that Congress has proposed."

Later in the 2012 presidential campaign, White House Chief of Staff Jack Lew alleged congressional Republicans insisted on the "automatic trigger" of sequestration.

Republicans Point Fingers at Obama

Republicans intensified their blame of Obama for the sequestration cuts in 2013. House Speaker John Boehner flatly accused Obama of coming up with the idea, calling it the "Obamaquester."

"The president's sequester is the wrong way to reduce the deficit, but it is here to stay until Washington Democrats get serious about cutting spending. The government simply cannot keep delaying the inevitable and spending money it doesn't have," Boehner wrote in a February 2013 op-ed in The Wall Street Journal.

Republicans Had Praised Sequestration Earlier

In 2011, however, Boehner was among the Republican leaders who expressed support for the Budget Control Act and voted in favor of it. "When you look at this final agreement that we came to with the White House, I got 98 percent of what I wanted," Boehner said in 2011. "I'm pretty happy."

The Budget Control Act including the sequestration cuts passed in the House with 174 Republicans voting in favor, including Boehner, House Majority Leader Eric Cantor and U.S. Rep. and 2012 vice presidential nominee Paul Ryan of Wisconsin.

Ryan, in fact, soon boasted about getting automatic spending cuts in the Budget Control Act.

"What conservatives like me have been fighting for for years are statutory caps on spending, literally legal caps in law that says government agencies cannot spend over a set amount of money and if they breach that amount across the board sequester comes in to cut that spending. You can’t turn it out without a supermajority. We got that into law," Ryan said on Fox News in 2011.

Book Cites Obama White House for Sequestration

A 2012 book written by legendary newspaperman Bob Woodward of The Washington Post claimed the idea of sequestration originated with the Obama White House, but that congressional Republicans signed on to the idea eventually.

Woodward, writing in the newspaper in 2013, said: "... the automatic spending cuts were initiated by the White House and were the brainchild of Lew and White House congressional relations chief Rob Nabors — probably the foremost experts on budget issues in the senior ranks of the federal government."

"Obama personally approved of the plan for Lew and Nabors to propose the sequester to Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.). They did so at 2:30 p.m. July 27, 2011, according to interviews with two senior White House aides who were directly involved," Woodward wrote.

No matter. The week before the sequestration cuts were set to begin in 2013, public opinion polls showed nearly half of Americans were blaming congressional Republicans for failing to reach a deal on deficit reduction. Fewer than a third, 31 percent, were blaming Obama.

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