Here's Who Is Really to Blame for Sequestration

Don't look at Obama or Republicans in Congress. The failure of the bipartisan "supercommittee" 15 months ago created the current mess.

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Members of the congressional "supercommittee" meet in September 2011 at the Capitol. (Reuters)

Patty Murray. Jon Kyl. Max Baucus. Rob Portman. John Kerry. Pat Toomey.

These six senators from both parties, along with six members of the House of Representatives, are the people to blame for the sequestration cuts scheduled to hit the federal budget beginning Friday. And yet in the energetic round of finger-pointing that has consumed Washington in recent days, their names have hardly been mentioned.

They are the former members of the so-called "supercommittee" -- the bipartisan crew that, back in 2011, was given four months to propose $1.2 trillion in deficit reduction. It was their failure to come together that created the current mess. Today, Republicans are focused on pinning sequestration on President Obama, who came up with the idea, while Obama has pointed the finger at Congress, which voted for it on an overwhelming, bipartisan basis. But that's silly. Nobody who "agreed" to sequestration actually wanted it to happen. In classic Washington fashion, they thought they could assign the hard work to somebody else and get them to do it. They were wrong.

The supercommittee was supposed to forge the deal that Obama and House Speaker John Boehner could not in their July 2011 debt-ceiling talks. It was this hypothetical future deficit reduction that got Republicans, grudgingly, to agree to raise the debt limit.

Sequestration -- automatic cuts to defense and discretionary spending -- was to be the punishment if the supercommittee could not come up with a plan. The cuts were designed to be as clumsy and inflexible as possible, in order to motivate lawmakers to come up with a better approach. That's why agency heads have very little discretion on which programs are hit by the cuts: They were designed to inflict maximum suffering on both parties' priorities, with little wiggle room to mitigate the pain. Republicans would be motivated to compromise to keep defense spending from being axed, while Democrats would come to the table to protect domestic programs.

That was the stick, but there was also a carrot: The supercommittee had enormous power. Whatever deal it produced would go directly to the floor of the House and Senate, ineligible for filibuster or amendment.

And so, in September 2011, the supercommittee held its first and only formal meeting. (It would also hold four public hearings, but most of its business was conducted behind the scenes.) The six senators (two of whom, Kyl and Kerry, have since left the Senate) and six representatives (Xavier Becerra, Jeb Hensarling, Jim Clyburn, Fred Upton, Chris Van Hollen, and Dave Camp) had been chosen by the Republican and Democratic leaders of their respective houses of Congress.

At first, there were glimmers of hope. As recounted in Politico's excellent supercommittee postmortem, there were private, bipartisan meetings between Baucus and Camp, who chair the Senate and House tax committees, respectively; Kerry and Portman went on bike rides and tried till the bitter end to work out a compromise.

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Molly Ball is a staff writer covering national politics at The Atlantic.

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