WASHINGTON We are headed into the peak week of sequestration insanity. The across-the-board budget cuts known as sequestration are set to take effect Friday. Here’s a simple rule for getting through the next few days: If you’re talking about sequestration, you’re doing it wrong. Sequestration was created to focus minds on the Big Thing. So if you’re talking obsessively about the sequestration, it means you aren’t thinking about the thing that you were supposed to be focused on.
First, the Big Thing. The two parties need to come to an agreement on how to spur economic growth to spread prosperity and reduce the budget deficit. The president believes growth comes from a balance of tax increases, investment, and spending reductions. Republicans believe growth comes through lower taxes and spending reductions, which in turn will spur companies to hire and invest. The president believes that taxes should increase because the system is tilted in favor of the wealthy and well-connected. Republicans believe that the federal government is already taking an unfair amount of taxes from everyone.
Even if this is obvious, it’s very hard to get people to focus on the Big Thing, so lawmakers tried to come up with a mechanism to center people’s thinking. They placed a big hairy monster outside the door to keep everyone focused on the Big Thing, and they named it Sequestration.
The political world is engaged in a debate about the monster, not the Big Thing. That means that right now the public debate is irrelevant.
There are two examples of this dispiriting distraction: the long and tedious debate over who came up with the sequester idea and the new debate over whether tax increases were supposed to be a part of it.
The president and his aides at first tried to deny that they invented sequestration, but it is clear that the president and his team proposed the idea. Instead of trying to weasel out and blame the idea on the Republicans, the president should own it: Yes, it was my idea to create a monster to force all of us to focus on the Big Thing, and the fact that you still won’t focus is the proof that it was necessary to create it. But President Barack Obama won’t do this because the monster is ready to break through the door.
But if it’s obvious the president came up with the idea, it’s also obvious that it doesn’t matter who came up with it. First, the Big Thing matters. Second, a majority of Republicans voted for sequestration. Once everyone agrees to order the monster from Acme and take off his chains, it doesn’t matter who suggested it first. Everyone agreed.
Sequestration was never designed to be good. Everyone agreed that sequestration cuts were supposed to be so bad that prudent lawmakers on both sides would seek to avoid them. So the fact that either side is trying to avoid sequestration – by denying provenance or pointing fingers – is not a bug, it’s a feature.
If we want to make progress, we shouldn’t talk about sequestration – we should talk about the solutions for slaying the monster.
We know that averting sequestration was always the important point because it was built into sequestration agreement itself. When the monster was taken off the chain, lawmakers formed a Committee to Stay Focused and called it the “supercommittee.” It was supposed to come up with something – anything – that would keep the monster at bay.
Alas, the Committee to Stay Focused did not stay focused. It failed to come up with an alternative to sequestration, but that didn’t change the task: how to avoid the monster through an agreement. Given that this remains the task at this hour, it is dire indeed that a new debate has erupted over the makeup of the monster. That’s what this recent fight about whether taxes were ever a part of sequestration is about. The fight is irrelevant: Determining whether taxes were a part of sequestration is like arguing how many arms the monster has.
Were tax increases among the things that were considered as a part of the plan to avoid the monster? Yes. The sequestration replacement could be about taxes, spending or magic beans. Various Republicans and Democrats suggested various alternatives that included taxes. Most Republicans objected to including taxes as a part of the sequestration replacement, which is exactly what they were supposed to do. They were supposed to have a philosophical disagreement focused on the Big Thing. We should get back to that quickly – before the monster arrives.
Dickerson (firstname.lastname@example.org) is Slate’s chief political correspondent.
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