"Many of the cuts we put in were smoke and mirrors," said Rep. Mick Mulvaney, R-S.C., a hard-line conservative now in his second term. "That's the lesson from April 2011: that when Washington says it cuts spending, it doesn't mean the same thing that normal people mean."
Now the failures of that 2011 bill have come back to haunt the leaders who crafted it. Disillusionment with that bill has persuaded many conservatives to reject a line-by-line, program-by-program approach to cutting the budget.
Instead, many have embraced the sequester, a looming $85 billion across-the-board cut set to take effect March 1. Obama and GOP leaders have said they don't like the idea: the sequester is a "dumb cut," in Washington parlance, which would cut the government's best ideas along with its worst without regard to merit.
But at least, conservatives say, you can trust that this one is for real.
"There has been a shift in resolve. They have been burned in these fictional cuts. And so the sequester is like real cuts," said Chris Chocola, a former congressman who now heads the Club for Growth, a conservative advocacy group. "So I think that there is a willingness to say, 'We've really got to cut stuff, and [the cuts] have got to be real."
The April 2011 budget cuts ended the first big battle of Congress's current era. That spring, a new crop of House conservatives — elected with tea party support — was demanding large budget cuts. The legislators would risk a government shutdown to get them.
But in both parties, leaders resisted the idea of a meat-ax cut to government. There was a recession going, after all.
"Given the economic and employment crisis, we tried to limit cuts that would cause major furloughs or layoffs that would put people out of work," Rogers said in a written statement released this week. Rogers declined to be interviewed on the record, but his statement went on to say that the bill's "cuts are real, and every dollar we did not provide is a dollar saved for the American taxpayer."