One of the most vexing questions of sequestration is this: Do President Obama and cabinet heads have the leeway to shape budget cuts so that they will inflict a minimum of pain, or do the president and his aides, as the White House claims, have so little flexibility in the matter that they can only stand by while devastating cuts take effect?
The remarkable thing about the current debate is that few people know the answer, or even whether there really is a clear answer. But a good case can be made that the president has more authority than he has acknowledged. Cabinet heads might well have considerable leeway to move money around to minimize the effects of cuts, and at the very least could do so after asking Congress for permission (which would likely be quickly granted).
Obama has claimed he is virtually powerless to stop cuts that the administration says will undermine U.S. national security, lower the nation’s defense against terrorism, devastate education and the environment, and make airline travel an even more difficult experience than it is today, among other ill effects. But is that really true?
In the past few days, I have talked to a range of people involved in the sequestration fight, from senior lawmakers to junior aides, and none is completely sure. “I actually don’t know,” said one Republican lawmaker who has spoken out on sequestration. “We’re trying to figure this out and get a real answer.”
But one person who has some insight into the problem is a plugged-in GOP aide who has experience both on Capitol Hill and in the executive branch. And, while noting that sequestration calls for cuts in all parts of the affected areas of government (discretionary spending — not the big entitlement programs), the aide notes that current law gives department heads a good deal of flexibility in spending their money. In an analysis of the situation, the aide says the best place to begin is to look at the “accounts” that make up the budgets of federal departments.
“Budget accounts can be large (National Institutes of Health, $40 billion, is one account) or small (double digit millions), but, typically they are large enough to comfortably move money around if unforeseen events occur — as they frequently do,” writes the aide.
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