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The sequestration pain game

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By Byron York
Friday, March 15, 2013, 8:57 p.m.

The little secret of sequestration is that the Obama administration could fix much of the problem pretty quickly. But it doesn't want to.

Congress tells executive branch agencies how much money they can spend and how they should spend it. Sometimes the instructions are broad and sometimes they are quite detailed. Cabinet secretaries and lower-downs are bound to work within those congressional directives.

But if Cabinet officers want to spend the money differently, there is a long-established process for doing so: They ask Congress for permission. It happens all the time, with lawmakers routinely giving the executive branch the OK to spend money in different ways than originally planned.

That could be happening now. All those Obama administration officials complaining about across-the-board cuts dictated by sequestration could come up with plans to make the same amount of cuts in ways that would create fewer problems for federal workers and public services.

But it's not happening. And the fault is not with Congress.

In recent weeks, House Republicans have been virtually begging administration officials to ask for permission to move money around. If one program could be more easily cut than others, those Republicans say, just ask us, and we'll let you do it.

“We sent out on Feb. 28 a letter to every Cabinet officer asking them what changes they'd like to have — pluses, subtractions and so on — to give them an opportunity to show us at least one program they would like to have cut, which would then save on sequestration,” Rep. Darrell Issa, R-Calif., chairman of the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform, said in an interview recently. “We did not receive a single answer.”

Issa explained that Congress can allow Cabinet officials to “reprogram” money to ease the burden of sequestration. For example, the sequester requires the Department of Transportation to cut $2 billion from its budget.

“If they were to come up with, for example, $500 million in cuts, their remaining sequestration would drop by 25 percent,” Issa said. “If they were able to come up with $2 billion worth of things they wanted to drop altogether or reduce, then they would have no sequestration.”

In other words, Obama Cabinet officials, if they choose, could have an enormous amount of flexibility in making the required budget cuts. They just don't want to.

At a recent committee hearing, Rep. Jim Jordan, R-Ohio, asked officials from the Transportation and Education departments a simple question: Since they've known about sequestration for a long time and also know they have the ability to ask Congress to reprogram money, why haven't they responded to Issa's letter offering help?

The officials had no answers.

Sequestration is still in its early stages. There is still time for the Obama administration to have a change of heart and to enact cuts in the least dramatic, least obtrusive way. Certainly, Issa is ready to go. Congress can move very quickly on something like this, he said, making an open offer to the administration: “If you find programs that you can cut altogether or programs that you can combine, the authority for it would be only hours away.”

Byron York is chief political correspondent for The Washington Examiner.

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