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.”