Essay: Did Everyone Misread the Sequestration Narrative?

House Majority Leader Eric Cantor, R-Va., delivers remarks during a news conference with fellow House GOP leaders at the Republican Party Headquarters on Feb. 13 in Washington. (Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images)

This is it. The clock is again ticking down toward Washington’s latest, as so many are calling it, “self-inflicted crisis,” also known as sequestration.

But what if it is nothing of the sort? What if the conventional wisdom about sequestration created a flawed narrative?

So much has been made in the 18 months since a frantic search in July and August 2011 for an elusive deal to raise the nation’s debt limit has been made about what the inclusion of twin $500 billion, across-the-board cuts to planned defense and domestic spending means.

How many times did a reporter or a colleague inform you the sequester was meant to scare Republicans and Democrats into replacing those cuts with something (anything!) to avoid allegedly painful cuts to prized defense and domestic programs? Countless, right?

The narrative around sequestration was only this: Only the budget-cutting meat axe could “force” the two sides into striking a deal that would produce at least $1.2 trillion in further deficit-reduction measures.

But with a Friday deadline for again delaying or permanently replacing some or all of the cuts, there is no effort underway in Washington to do either of those things. That means the cuts likely will be triggered at the end of this week.

(The reductions wouldn’t go into effect until March 27. More on that later this week.)

Perhaps this narrative, spouted by both political parties as the 2011 Budget Control Act was plodding its way toward passage and in the immediate aftermath of it becoming law, was flawed. Perhaps sequestration was never about “focusing” the parties on anything. Perhaps sequestration’s inclusion in the 2011 BCA — which, yes, the White House first pitched but congressional Republican leaders accepted after rejecting other proposals — was not about raising the debt ceiling then and passing a big deficit-cutting plan later.

It is increasingly apparent, to this correspondent at least, that sequestration was exactly what it appeared on the surface: The product of a set of tense negotiations in the summer of 2011 between two sides that simply don’t like one another.

As famous journalist Bob Woodward’s latest book and the reporting of other reporters who reported on the 2011 negotiations up close and in real time both show, the talks were intense and nearly collapsed several times. It took including the across-the-board cuts idea to get it done. Sequester was the last cog that made the BCA machine run, even if that engine sounds sluggish to most.

It is telling that neither side in this saga ever pivoted with overwhelming force toward, as John Dickerson of Slate and CBS News put it in an excellent Sunday piece, the “Big Thing.”

Instead, both sides engaged in the Blame Game and offered legislation everyone knew would never be passed, much less signed into law.

Even today, four days from cuts that have been called “Draconian,” there’s a striking lack of urgency to do anything about them.

It is increasingly apparent sequestration and its $1.2 trillion in deficit-reduction components were mostly always about getting that 2011 deal across the finish line, then achieving $1.2 trillion more in deficit reduction now.

With four days to go, will anyone in Washington ride in with a serious proposal that will rescue that dying narrative?

John T. Bennett

John T. Bennett

Bennett is the Editor of Defense News' CongressWatch channel. He has a Masters degree in Global Security Studies from Johns Hopkins University.
John T. Bennett