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Sequester debate is Washington’s version of ‘Who’s on First?’

Nothing brings my family together like the classic Abbott and Costello routine “Who’s on First?” Wife, son, two teenage daughters — they all hate it. Where is the entertainment, they ask, in a high-pitched repetitive confrontation between two people talking past one another? Watching both sides talk past one another in the sequester showdown, I begin to see their point.

On the surface, much of the Washington budget talk appears ready-made for compromise. Senator Lindsey Graham says he’s “willing to raise $600 billion in new revenue if my Democratic friends would be willing to reform entitlements.” Meanwhile, the president repeats his mantra of “a balanced approach” ad nauseam.

To the untrained ear, the two appear to be singing the same song. They’re not. Like Abbott and Costello, they are using the same terms, but two entirely different conversations are taking place. And even if these key players saw eye to eye, the complexity of congressional mathematics would still lead to a stalemate.


It is easy to find a dozen members of Congress on both sides of the aisle who agree on a basic outline for modifying automatic spending cuts, reforming the tax code, or committing to a bigger deficit reduction deal. You might even track down 100. But that’s not nearly enough. Finding the necessary 278 — that’s 218 in the House, and 60 in the Senate — is an entirely different story.

Avoiding the sequester represents a far more complex political calculus than showdowns over raising the debt limit, avoiding a “government shutdown,” or extending tax cuts. For the most part, those battles were simple binary choices: voting yes or no on the debt ceiling, for or against a tax bill. Negotiating an alternative to sequestration brings everything into play: defense and non-defense spending, mandatory and discretionary programs, and — at the president’s insistence — taxes.

That, to put it in Beltway speak, is a lot of moving parts. Deals of this complexity don’t come together overnight, and if they do, it takes a team of vote-counting PhDs to predict whether they’ll attract the 278 votes needed to cross the finish line. By mid-February most every member of the House and Senate knew that this couldn’t happen by the March 1 deadline. President Obama pretended otherwise and pursued a string of campaign-style rallies across the country. His first invitation to meet Congressional leaders face-to-face came on Friday — the day the cuts were set to begin.


As much as President Obama loves to take swings at Congress — and with 17 percent approval, it’s hard to find an easier target — his attempt to politicize the process has been counterproductive. Representative Tom Cole made the point eloquently. “He’s running a great campaign,” observed the laid-back Oklahoma Republican, “but as a legislative strategy it is catastrophic.” Republicans have little respect for his showmanship given that the automatic cuts were his idea in the first place. (Ask Bob Woodward.)

Ultimately, it’s that lack of trust that most worries experienced Democrats and Republicans in the halls of Congress. It takes trust to move two sides from saying the same thing to agreeing on a course of action, and from cutting a deal to finally passing a bill. Democrats are wary of Speaker John Boehner’s ability to deliver votes; Republicans have seen nothing from the president to indicate he is serious about controlling spending.

Meanwhile, dozens of legislators on both sides of the political spectrum are working overtime to undermine any potential consensus. Philosophically, many are opposed to changes that they fear might be part of a bipartisan effort. The hard left opposes the entitlement reforms endorsed by Graham; the right rejects yet another round of tax increases demanded by Obama. And geographically, almost all reside in states or districts that provide complete immunity from the political fallout of failure — whatever it may be.


In a world where YouTube has replaced the immediacy of vaudeville, the innovative Bad Lip Reading videos are the modern-day “Who’s on First?” And in a certain way, these videos might help explain how the words “balanced approach” and “fiscal responsibility” look to some like “tax increases” and “Medicare cuts.”

Washington remains a place where politicians often believe they are saying one thing while much of the world — and perhaps their adversaries — hears something entirely different. Sometimes that miscommunication is funny. Sometimes, it grates on your nerves.

John E. Sununu, a former Republican senator from New Hampshire, writes regularly for the Globe.