Blame game gets intense at federal cuts draw near
By JACKIE CALMES
The New York Times | February 24,2013
AP File Photos
House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, left, and President Barack Obama are the lightning rods for their respective parties as massive cuts in federal programs draw closer.
WASHINGTON — First the White House and Congress created a potential fiscal crisis, agreeing more than a year ago to once-unthinkable governmentwide spending cuts in 2013 unless the two parties agreed to alternative ways to reduce budget deficits.
Now that those cuts are imminent — because compromise is not — they have created one of Washington’s odder blame games over just whose bad idea this was.
The battle lines over cuts that are scheduled to begin Friday, known in budget parlance as sequestration, were evident Saturday in President Barack Obama’s weekly address and the Republican response, by Sen. John Hoeven of North Dakota.
The idea for sequestration did come from the White House, as news accounts made clear at the time — Jacob J. Lew, then Obama’s budget director and now his nominee for Treasury secretary, was the main proponent.
Lew, who was a senior adviser to the House speaker in the 1980s, lifted language from a 1985 law he helped negotiate, the Gramm-Rudman law. It was conceived by two Republican senators to be “a sword of Damocles,” as they said at the time, one that hung over the two parties, poised to strike unless they compromised on deficit reduction.
The law was ruled unconstitutional, and afterward, the Democratic-controlled Congress and President Ronald Reagan enacted a modified version, which resulted in relatively minor cuts until 1990.
Fast-forward to the summer of 2011. Obama and congressional Republicans were able to agree to nearly $1 trillion in reductions over a decade in “discretionary” spending programs, which cover just about everything the government does except entitlement programs.
But they could not agree on the final $1.2 trillion. The president demanded that that amount come from higher taxes on the wealthy and some reductions in entitlement spending. Republicans insisted on entitlement cuts only.
So both parties started negotiating for a trigger, as they called it — an undesirable, automatic action that would slash deficits if Democrats and Republicans could not. Obama and Democrats wanted a trigger mandating automatic spending cuts and tax increases; Republicans insisted on spending cuts only.
Democrats conceded, and that is when Lew — along with Gene Sperling, director of Obama’s National Economic Council — proposed the Gramm-Rudman sequestration. Given that law’s Republican parentage, the Obama advisers figured this kind of trigger would appeal to Republicans, and it did.
House Speaker John A. Boehner and three-quarters of House Republicans voted for the agreement.