Here's Who Is Really to Blame for Sequestration

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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.

But it didn't take long for the two sides to realize there was little middle ground between their irreconcilable positions. Republicans wouldn't raise taxes, and Democrats wouldn't cut entitlements. Each side offered what it saw as concessions -- Republicans proposing modest revenue increases from tax reform, Democrats offering trims to Medicare and Medicaid. But each side saw the other's idea of "compromise" as laughably insufficient.

By about a week before the November 23 deadline, it was clear that there was no deal to be had. Members left town for Thanksgiving, and their staffs spent the final days, pathetically enough, discussing "how the panel should publicly admit that lawmakers could not meet their mandate of shaving $1.2 trillion from the federal debt." Even on that, naturally, they couldn't agree: The Republicans wanted to release a printed statement from the committee's co-chairs, Murray and Hensarling, while Democrats wanted them to give the statement in person.

Why did the supercommittee fail so miserably, and what lessons can we draw from it for the current stalemate, which is really the same stalemate 15 months later?

First and foremost, the supercommittee seems to prove that romantic notions of legislative dealmaking are misplaced, and Obama's deficiencies as a horse-trader, significant as they may be, aren't principally to blame for the ongoing standoff. There's been a welter of punditry of late pining for the days of Ronald Reagan and Tip O'Neill, or even Bill Clinton and Newt Gingrich -- swashbuckling pols who were willing to take political risks to make big things happen. If only Obama had that ability and willingness to drive a bargain and bend the other side to his will, this line of thinking goes, things might be different.

But the supercommittee was made up of some of Congress's biggest dealmakers. As the Washington Post's Paul Kane noted:

There are at least a half dozen folks on this panel that either have a history of working on big deals, or they sorta grew into that role in this process. Max Baucus, Rob Portman, Dave Camp, John Kerry, Chris Van Hollen -- that was a core group of folks that are serious about legislating. Or, in Kerry's case, have clearly grown into the role during these talks, despite this not being his area of expertise (that being foreign affairs). There was a core here that should have been able to get this done.

In a priceless scene from the Politico tick-tock, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid and former Senator Chris Dodd made a pilgrimage to the burial plot of Ted Kennedy, where "Dodd poured some whiskey on Kennedy's grave while Reid recited a prayer." But even this shamanistic conjuring of the spirit of deals past couldn't make the supercommittee magic happen.

In the end, nobody could agree, and nobody took the deadline very seriously anyway. Sound familiar?

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

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