Sequester Means and Ends

Senator Pat Toomey (R., Penn.)


Democrats oppose, and Republicans are divided over, legislation sponsored by senators Pat Toomey and James Inhofe that would give the president flexibility in administering sequestration, ostensibly to spare the most vital programs and personnel from designedly roughshod and haphazard cuts. We have previously argued both that sequester is bad policy, and that it is nevertheless better than no spending cuts at all. We maintain that position, but view the Republican plan to allow more flexibility in the allocation of the cuts as both materially and strategically desirable.

The unconventional proposal, which has at least the tacit support of Senate Republican leadership (if not the whole caucus), would give President Obama and executive agency heads a week to design a plan for reapportioning cuts while maintaining the top lines set out in the original sequester. It would give Congress a means for rejecting the executive’s plan through the passage of a resolution of disapproval, though, because of the odd construction of the mechanism, that resolution would then be subject to a presidential veto.

There is an abstract worry among some Republicans that ceding what amounts to appropriations authority to the president is an abdication of congressional duty. But giving the administration more flexibility would make it easier to avoid some foolish cuts mandated by the sequester and would take some of the air out of the administration’s political campaign to make the sequester so radioactive that it can’t be sustained. Proximately, this means ending the administration’s nationwide tour of wailing and teeth gnashing about how sequestration will leave food un-inspected, children unvaccinated, and air-traffic-control towers unmanned. Moreover, Congress isn’t actually giving up any authority it intends to exercise. The question isn’t one of congressional discretion versus executive discretion, it’s one of executive discretion versus no discretion at all.

Other Republicans — including senators McCain, Graham, and Ayotte — oppose the plan because they hold out hope for saving the defense budget from the outsized hit it will take come March. But that hope is very likely misplaced, as the price of a sequestration replacement that would spare defense would be higher taxes that couldn’t pass Congress.

The flexibility option might not be able to pass the Senate, either. Harry Reid maintains that his caucus is united against it, although statements from Democratic senators such as Joe Manchin and Thomas Carper suggest that, if push comes to shove, they might favor it. Either way, Harry Reid has made it plain he intends to give Senate Republicans but a single vote on a sequester alternative, and so their best bet is to unify around the flexibility option, which presents the best mix of substantive and political upside. Even if Republicans offer the flexibility option and it fails, it will serve to highlight the unreasonableness of Democrats, who will be saying that they oppose the sequester but don’t want to mitigate its most thoughtless cuts.

For his part, President Obama does not appear as interested in acquiring new flexibility as past statements to Slavic heads of state would suggest. In one of umpteen demagoguing speeches euphemized as “campaign-style” by the media, President Obama warned (while standing in front of a giant naval propeller) that “there’s no smart way” to administer the first round of sequester cuts over the final seven months of the current fiscal year, no matter how much leeway he is given to target them. Leave to one side the disturbing implications of the president’s admitting that, given all the power in the world, he still doesn’t know how to responsibly cut spending by 2 percent: It’s still the case that the time crunch is attributable in large part to the president’s “campaign-style” decision last year to order agencies not to plan ahead for the cuts.

Besides, the Toomey-Corker proposal need not hold up for the rest of the fiscal year. Next month, Republicans and Democrats will have a fresh opportunity to reshape sequestration as part of negotiations over the next continuing resolution (which, as ever, exists in lieu of a budget), and in six months they will have yet another bite at the apple as the regular appropriations process begins. If Republicans act wisely, and Democrats reasonably, either process could render the composition of the sequester (although not its lower spending levels) moot.

Editor’s note: This piece has been amended since its initial posting.