Obama misleads by trying to disown sequester plan his team conceived

Now that the mandatory budget cuts known as sequestration have hit, both parties are seeking to shift the blame as Americans begin to absorb the realities of less government spending. The truth is both parties are responsible for the sequester: the White House for conceiving the concept and Republicans for voting for it.

But you sure couldn’t tell from the way President Barack Obama and his team have been talking the last week.

“We shouldn’t be making a series of dumb, arbitrary cuts to things that businesses depend on and workers depend on,” Obama said during a press conference Thursday.  “As long as the sequesters in place, we’ll know that that economic news could have been better if Congress had not failed to act.”

But as journalist Bob Woodward noted in an op-ed in The Washington Post, the idea of sequestration originated inside the White House and was approved by the president. Woodward provides exquisite detail from the reporting on his latest book to back up his assertion.

“The automatic spending cuts were initiated by the White House and were the brainchild of [then OMB-Director Jack Lew]  and White House congressional relations chief Rob Nabors — probably the foremost experts on budget issues in the senior ranks of the federal government,” Woodward wrote, adding that Obama “personally approved” sending the plan to Congress. His reporting even provided the exact time the White House briefed Congress on the plan: 2:30 p.m. EDT on July 27, 2011.

To be fair, the White House calculation was that Republicans would never agree to sequester cuts that hit the Pentagon hard. But the GOP did, and the sequester became law as part of the Budget Control Act of 2011. And if you propose it, and it becomes law, you have to own it.

And for a while, the president did own the sequester. In November 2011, Obama vowed to veto any effort to eliminate the sequester cuts in the absence of a broader deal. “I will veto any effort to get rid of those automatic spending cuts,” the president said. “The only way to get rid of those cuts is to get Congress to come together and work on a deal.”

But now, the president and his team have tried to shift blame to the GOP without acknowledging its own role in the debacle. “The reason we are here is because some members of Congress have made a choice to prioritize these cuts over closing tax loopholes for the wealthy. But there is still time for them to make a different choice and undo this manufactured crisis,” the White House said in an email blast Friday night to millions of Americans.

For failing to take ownership of an unpopular political solution they helped create, Obama and his team win the latest Whopper of the Week, a distinction awarded by the Washington Guardian to the worst examples of government fibs, lies, truth stretching and unwarranted fingerpointing.

The administration has also done its best to wrap the sequester in the language of impending doom, drawing out specific examples of the consequences of spending cuts.

“Border Patrol agents will see their hours reduced. FBI agents will be furloughed. Federal prosecutors will have to close cases and let criminals go,” Obama said in a Feb. 19 speech, using language clearly designed to conjure up images of violent criminals being thrown out onto the street because the government would be too poor to keep them in.

The Justice Department has said it is expecting some difficulty in handling a high volume of cases with budget cuts likely forcing federal prosecutors to work fewer hours.  But officials do have discretion over where the cuts will be made, and there are a number of ways to save money before criminal prosecutions would suffer.  For example, prosecutors might trim back on pursuing civil complaints, but criminal offenses would be unaffected.

Education Secretary Arne Duncan also got into the act.

“There are literally teachers now who are getting pink slips, who are getting notices that they can’t come back this fall,” Duncan said on CBS’s Face the Nation last Sunday.

Duncan’s statement is rooted in the difficulties faced by budget cuts, but overstates the facts.  Federal funding for schools will be hit by the sequestration – and some teachers will likely loose their jobs – but the relationship isn’t as close as Duncan implied.  

The fact that schools will have less money is, frankly, nothing new to deal with.  The nation’s education sector has been dealing with decreased resources for a while, exacerbated by the recession.  But most of school funds are raised and spent at the local and state levels, leaving those officials in charge of decisions.  The choice to lay off teachers is at the state’s discretion, not the federal government’s.  It’s unclear exactly how many teachers’ employment might be affected by cuts at the Education Department.

Taxpayers are likely in for a long fight.  Both parties will try to place blame on each other until at least the next round of elections in 2014. And voters should be aware of claims that seem too good, or too scary to be true.

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