Woodward Right About Obama Moving Sequester Goal Posts

There are two stories circulating around Bob Woodward this morning. One is relatively easy to resolve and the other is more difficult.

The first is the the claim being made by numerous media personalities, both left and right, that what Woodward received from the White House wasn't really a "threat." Ben Smith, Dave Weigel, and Greg Sargent have all taken up this argument in various ways. Erick Erickson of Red State also put himself in the "not a threat" camp.

One must note that Woodward himself never used the word "threat" in his description of the exchange with the White House. He had two chances to do so but chose not to in his CNN appearance or his interview with Politico. However, it is fair to say that Woodward implied a threat was made. In the Politico interview he specifically imagined what a junior reporter would take from the exchange and described it as "trembling, trembling, trembling." 

So Politico's use of the phrase "veiled threat" seems like a reasonable representation of Woodward's view. It's not a threat to life and limb, obviously—not even a specific threat of retribution—but it is an attempt, on top of the half hour of yelling, to dissuade publication of a damaging story. Whether that behavior is routine or acceptable is a debate I'll leave to others.

The second story circulating around Woodward is the more important one. The left has been arguing since Woodward published his piece that he is simply wrong on the facts. Specifically, they take issue with his penultimate line, which reads, "when the president asks that a substitute for the sequester include not just spending cuts but also new revenue, he is moving the goal posts."

Not true, says Ezra Klein. The President did not move any goal posts:

The sequester was a punt. The point was to give both sides a face-saving way to raise the debt ceiling even though the tax issue was stopping them from agreeing to a deficit deal. The hope was that sometime between the day the sequester was signed into law (Aug. 2, 2011) and the day it was set to go into effect (Jan. 1, 2013), something would…change.

This is Klein's take on the outlines of the Grand Bargain; however, it is not an accurate summary of what was agreed to in the Budget Control Act of 2011. The BCA created a supercommittee made up of 12 people, 6 from each party. It was intended to come up with a plan for additional deficit reduction and report back to Congress before the end of the year. The White House Fact Sheet announcing the deal made it clear the goal was to reach an agreement on taxes and entitlement reform.

But the White House also wanted the issue to disappear until after the election, so in conjunction with Congress it proposed (and the President specifically endorsed) an enforcement mechanism called sequestration. In exchange for the President agreeing to a package of $1.2T in cuts with no revenues as a fail safe, Republicans agreed to raise the debt limit high enough that it would not be reached until after the election.

The significant point is that the trigger for sequestration was not the same date as the implementation date. The BCA states the following:

Unless a joint committee bill achieving an amount greater than $1,200,000,000,000 in deficit reduction as provided in section 401(b)(3)(B)(i)(II) of the Budget Control Act of 2011 is enacted by January 15, 2012, the discretionary spending limits listed in section 251(c) shall be revised, and discretionary appropriations and direct spending shall be reduced, as follows:

The supercommittee was designed to reach a "balanced deal" before the end of 2011; however, there was a drop dead date under the terms of the BCA. As you can see above, the trigger date for the sequester was January 15, 2012. The BCA also set a termination date for the supercommittee of Jan. 31, 2012, making further negotiations under its auspices impossible.

Today I confirmed all of this with Heritage budget expert Patrick Knudsen. Sequester was, in fact, triggered more than a year ago, and nothing in the American Taxpayer Relief Act of 2012 (the fiscal cliff deal) was designed to reset the trigger or recreate the supercommittee. All it did was delay implementation. So as a matter of law, sequester is a done deal, and we're just awaiting the implementation. You could say the same thing about the President's health reform plan. It was signed in 2010, but implementation is still coming.

It may well be that the President hoped, even if the supercommittee failed, sequestration could be replaced with something more to his liking. However, the text of the BCA doesn't have any provisions for meeting those expectations. It simply says the sequester is triggered on Jan. 15, 2012 and implemented on Jan. 2, 2013 (and each year thereafter). The delay between trigger and implementation was not, as Klein would have it, so the argument could continue all year. It was so the argument could be avoided all year while the President campaigned. It was only raised, late in the campaign, by Mitt Romney, at which point the President denied having anything to do with it.

Circling back around to Woodward's original claim, he was right about the President moving the goalposts. A deal was struck in writing. The deal says if the supercommittee fails, sequester is triggered. That happened a year ago and will be implemented—after a delay—in a few days. Anything other than that action is not part of the deal; it's changing the deal.

Notice that Klein doesn't actually argue that the goalposts haven't been moved—not convincingly, anyway. His real argument is that the move was made by the people when they voted for Obama in 2012. That's a good political argument for his side, but it is a political argument. It's similar to a Republican arguing in Dec. 2010 that the Tea Party wave had changed everything for Obamacare. It's a good rallying cry, but as we've seen, even a wave election doesn't necessarily undo a prior law. Similarly, the 2012 election didn't actually change the terms of the BCA or undo what the President and his party agreed to back in 2011.

The President understands this perfectly well. He's not resting his case for replacement of the sequester on a sub-paragraph of the BCA. There isn't one that supports what he's currently trying to do, anyway. Instead, he's out barnstorming the country and the media with tales of budget woe. He's working to build public pressure by making the cuts seem as scary as possible. This is the bully pulpit in action, and last week, Bob Woodward caught a bit of the bully.

As for the details of the origin of sequester, they matter precisely because we've left the clear black-and-white guidelines of the BCA. An honest politician in the President's shoes would be forced to argue, "We must replace these cuts I proposed and agreed to because they are a terrible idea." But a salesman who campaigns against his own product doesn't inspire much confidence. That's why the White House pushed back so hard on Woodward.


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