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February 22, 2013 10:27 AM Sequester: How Low Can You Go?

By Ed Kilgore

If you want to comprehend the stupidity of the impending appropriations sequester, be sure to read Dylan Matthews’ in-the-weeds analysis at Wonkblog of how it actually would work based on talking to people involved in its implementation the one time is was tried before, in 1991. Because the basic idea is to deny bureaucrats the power to use their brains, the key question is “how low you go” in defining the “programs, projects and activities” that are subject to identical levels of cuts. OMB will be in charge of answering these questions, and because the administration wants to disclaim any responsibility for the drooling idiocy of how this will play out, OMB will likely reduce agency discretion to an absolute minimum. The idea is to let John Boehner explain why keeping tax loopholes for the rich means we have to massively cut the pay via furloughs of 800,000 civilian Pentagon employees, good, bad or so-so. There are some loopholes, but not many:

There are a few potential areas of executive discretion. Defense spending can be altered through a process called “reprogramming,” in which the DoD allocates money originally appropriated for one purpose to another (subject to approval by congressional oversight committees). Some non-defense departments have reprogramming authority, but it’s typically much more limited. That would allow the Pentagon to, say, move a chunk of money from one fighter-jet program to another, such that across-the-board cuts end up having a bigger net effect on one than on another. And, of course, Obama and Congress could always pass an alternative set of cuts. But if the sequester proceeds as it did the last go-around, the executive will be pretty much stuck.

And that’s exactly how the whole thing was designed.

Ed Kilgore is a contributing writer to the Washington Monthly. He is managing editor for The Democratic Strategist and a senior fellow at the Progressive Policy Institute. Find him on Twitter: @ed_kilgore.

Comments

  • Mimikatz on February 22, 2013 11:32 AM:

    This is just like the fiscal bluff at the end of last year. The GOP has to let it happen so they can get that frisson that comes with doing something naughty, and also so that tax increases become cuts, and budget restorations become a positive, and ey can do what needs to be done while kidding themselves at they aren't.

    The sequester as such isn't really going to happen, not the trillion plus over 10 years. They are going to fiddle with the budget in the continuing resolution, make some face-saving cuts and promises to do tax reform, and get it behind them for a few more months, maybe all the way to October, when the fundig runs out again because they have not done a budget.

    It is really just a distraction so no one realizes that Congress really isn't governing any more. And it will continue until there aren't enough GOP crazies to make it work.

  • Mimikatz on February 22, 2013 11:40 AM:

    This is just like the fiscal bluff at the end of last year. The GOP has to let it happen so they can get that frisson that comes with doing something naughty, and also so that tax increases become cuts, and budget restorations become a positive, and ey can do what needs to be done while kidding themselves at they aren't.

    The sequester as such isn't really going to happen, not the trillion plus over 10 years. They are going to fiddle with the budget in the continuing resolution, make some face-saving cuts and promises to do tax reform, and get it behind them for a few more months, maybe all the way to October, when the fundig runs out again because they have not done a budget.

    It is really just a distraction so no one realizes that Congress really isn't governing any more. And it will continue until there aren't enough GOP crazies to make it work.

  • MCD on February 22, 2013 12:59 PM:

    "800,000 civilian Pentagon employees"

    It's a big building, but I didn't realize it was THAT big. How many basements does it have?

  • Blue Girl on February 22, 2013 1:24 PM:

    LOL @MCD, and I appreciate the joke -- but since others may not, I'll treat it seriously for just a moment. In actuality, those 800,000 civilian "Pentagon" employees are actually DoD employees, and they are scattered all over the world. When my husband was still in the Air Force and I worked in DoD hospitals on base wherever we were, I was a "Pentagon" employee, even though I worked at a facility thousands of miles away.