Saturday, February 23, 2013

No, Bob Woodward, the White House did not move the goalposts on the supercommittee's charge

Bob Woodward claims to have proof, in the form of statements by the principals, that the idea of using sequestration as an enforcement mechanism in the Budget Control Act of 2011 originated with the White House. That may be.*

Woodward also asserts that "the final deal reached between Vice President Biden and Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) in 2011 included an agreement that there would be no tax increases in the sequester." He provides no quotes in this article to back that statement up. If there was any such agreement, it was never put in writing and it is not reflected in the legislative language or in official descriptions of the deal immediately following its announcement.

A CBO statement put out on August 1, 2011, described the supercommittee's task as follows:
Create a Congressional Joint Select Committee on Deficit Reduction to propose further deficit reductions, with a stated goal of achieving at least $1.5 trillion in budgetary savings over 10 years
The BCA itself describes the supercommittee task as follows:

GOAL.—The goal of the joint committee  shall be to reduce the deficit by at least $1,500,000,000,000 over the period of fiscal years (Sect 401b, p. 52).
"Reduce the deficit" does not mean "by spending cuts only."

Publicly, from the moment the deal was announced, Republicans insisted that the supercommittee was tasked with considering cuts only, and Democrats insisted that new revenues would be part of the mix.  Announcing the deal on July 31, 2011, Obama said this of the supercommittee (my emphasis):

It establishes a bipartisan committee of Congress to report back by November with a proposal to further reduce the deficit, which will then be put before the entire Congress for an up or down vote.  In this stage, everything will be on the table. To hold us all accountable for making these reforms, tough cuts that both parties would find objectionable would automatically go into effect if we don’t act.  And over the next few months, I’ll continue to make a detailed case to these lawmakers about why I believe a balanced approach is necessary to finish the job.

We all know, and well knew by July 31, 2011, what Obama meant by "a balanced approach" -- the mixture of tax hikes and spending cuts that he had asked citziens to urge on their congressional reps throughout that July.  The White House outline of the deal, also published on July 31 (same link as above), was more specific:
Expedited process for balanced deficit reduction: Puts in place a longer term process for additional $1.5 trillion in deficit reduction through a committee structure that will put everything on the table, including tax and entitlement reform. To prevent either side from using procedural tricks to prevent Congress from acting, the committee’s recommendations will receive fast track authority, which means they can’t be amended or filibustered. 
It's true that Republicans understood the supercommittee's mandate as finding $1.2 trillion in cuts only, as that would complete their commitment to balance a $2.4 trillion rise in the debt ceiling with $2.4 in reduced spending. But while the GOP never bent in its 'no new revenue' stance, they did not cry treachery in response to Democrats' assertions that the supercommittee consider tax hikes too.

* Even with regard to who proposed what, who knows what ambiguities pertain? Woodward claims that White House congressional relations chief Rob Nabors told people, in his paraphrase, that  "A mandatory sequester was the only action-forcing mechanism they could devise."Jack  Lew, on the other hand, has said, "There was an insistence on the part of Republicans in Congress for there to be some automatic trigger... [it]was very much rooted in the Republican congressional insistence that there be an automatic measure at the end" (Woodward quotes the first part of this). Republicans may have insisted on the the principle, and Nabors/Lew may have dredged up the mechanism, which dated from the 1980s.

Update: See Brian Beutler and Dave Weigel on the supercommittee's mandate.Oh, and my update on Woodward's elaboration of his nonsensical point to Politico.

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