POLITICS
04/23/2013 02:17 pm ET

George, This Is What Sequestration Does

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WASHINGTON -- George Will is a thoughtful guy, but he and other conservatives are wrong to accuse President Barack Obama of manipulating sequestration to make its cuts more dire and dramatic.

If you read the relevant laws and the sober-minded technical analyses, you know that it is Congress, starting in 1985, that spelled out the straitjacketed process that the president and his administration have no choice but to follow now.

The sequester does not require the administration to cut roughly 8.4 percent across the board. It demands 8.4 percent from each of hundreds of domestic "budget accounts," and 8.4 percent from each of the "programs, payments and activities" within them. The budget cutters can't legally switch one into another.

So for all you Dittoheads who think Obama is personally making you languish in a Transportation Security Administration line at the airport: It's not his fault. Blame congressional negotiators who failed to find a less draconian way to reduce the federal debt by $1.5 trillion over 10 years.

This is an obvious point to some, but not to those conservatives who see malevolent intent in every presidential move. Fair-minded voters beyond the Beltway may also be confused. After all, it doesn't take a hardened cynic to suspect a politician of putting his finger on the budget scale for political advantage.

The right conjures up conspiracy. "Obama can pick and choose which cuts to make in order to make Republicans look bad," complained conservative author Rachel Alexander.

Conservative columnist Will accused Obama of wanting to make the cuts as
disruptive as possible. When told that White House press secretary Jay Carney had previously warned of the sequester's severe consequences, Will was dismissive: "I will do many things for my country and my profession. I will not take Mr. Carney seriously."

Was the administration fully prepared on March 1 to deal as smoothly as possible with this fiscal year's $85 billion in cuts, which had to occur over just seven months? Not really -- though, in fairness, it was an unprecedented task.

Are Democrats firing off press release after press release to highlight the impact of the cuts now taking effect? Of course they are.

But is the president somehow stage-managing which cuts go where to focus the pain for political gain?

No. He can't. What is happening now is what the law requires, nothing less and nothing more. The president has no choice but to follow it.

Here's what the laws and the technical analyses say. According to the Office of Management and Budget (OMB), 897 non-defense "budget accounts" -- and the thousands of "programs, payments and activities" within them -- shall be cut by the "same percentage."

This procedure is spelled out in a 1985 Reagan era law called the Balanced Budget and Emergency Deficit Control Act, and it was written to be ironclad on spending, other than exempted programs such as Social Security, Medicare, Medicaid and the like.

According to the OMB (and the Congressional Research Service), the fiscal cliff law of 2011 requires that "each budget account must be analyzed separately to determine its PPAs [programs, payments and activities]." Then, each agency must "conduct a detailed analysis of their appropriation act(s) for the relevant fiscal year and, if applicable, any legislative report accompanying the act." And then they carry out the cuts accordingly.

Which means no leeway. In the list compiled by the OMB, the Department of Transportation has among its many accounts one for the Federal Aviation Administration. Within it are three budget accounts. One is for "Operations." It is, in OMB lingo, "sequesterable."

So if you think air traffic controllers are being furloughed on purpose, you are right -- but only because that is what Congress chose to do.

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