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 services. Then they could ask Congress for permission to do so. Lawmakers would say yes, and things would be fine.
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, 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 chose, could have an enormous amount of flexibility in making the required budget cuts. They just don't want to. "We've had zero answers," repeated Issa.