Sequester: How Low Can You Go?

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

Ed Kilgore, a Monthly contributing editor, is a columnist for the Daily Intelligencer, New York magazine’s politics blog, and the managing editor for the Democratic Strategist.