Moreover, it must be carved out of a narrow slice of the budget called operating accounts, much of which goes into payrolls and contracts. (Most of all entitlement spending, including Social Security and Medicare, is exempt.)
"There is nothing wrong with cutting spending that much -- we should be cutting even more -- but the sequester is an ugly and dangerous way to do it," House Speaker John Boehner wrote this week in an op-ed column for The Wall Street Journal.
There are plenty of places to cut a defense budget that is approaching $700 billion, fattened by congressionally designated pork obtained by highly paid lobbyists. Still, indiscriminate, meat-ax cuts in our military forces are not the way to do it.
True, the department would have some "wiggle room" to soften the blow, according to a Congressional Research Service analysis. But that would take Congress's approval to allow the DOD to shift funds from one account to another, a jealously guarded management tool that lawmakers refuse to yield to the executive branch.
How did we get into this mess? Obama, with help from his friends in the news media, is blaming the Republicans, but Speaker Boehner tells us a much different story about how the government ended up in this sequester box.
When negotiations over the debt limit reached a bottleneck in 2011, Harry Reid and Senate Republican leader Mitch McConnell worked out a bipartisan plan to cap discretionary spending and create a special House-Senate "super-committee" to come up with $1.2 trillion in budget cuts. If they didn't, the debt limit would not be raised, presumably forcing a compromise.
But Obama "was determined not to face another debt-limit increase before his re-election campaign," Boehner explained in his op-ed column. "Having just blown up one deal, the president scuttled this bipartisan, bicameral agreement. His solution? A sequester."
With yet another debt-limit crisis breathing down their necks, both parties "reluctantly accepted the president's demand for the sequester," and the deal was approved with bipartisan support.
In the end, the super-committee failed to agree to any budget plan, even though Republicans proposed a mix of spending cuts and additional revenue through tax reforms. "As a result, the president's sequester is now imminent," Boehner said.
House Republicans have passed two budget-cutting plans to replace the sequester. They gave Obama a vote on higher taxes on people earning more than $400,000 a year, giving him $600 billion in new revenue.
But what has Obama come up with in return? Photo-op, blame-pointing, fear-mongering news conferences, but no budget-cutting plan to prevent the sequester from taking place.
He continues to insist that any deal must include higher taxes or else he seems ready to let the sequester do its work. For four straight years he has been calling for higher tax rates, something he couldn't get when the Democrats controlled both houses of Congress.
But as Boehner correctly says, "the tax debate is closed."
With the economy slowing to a crawl, new housing starts declining and unemployment claims on the rise again, this is no time to be increasing taxes on anyone.
The ball is now in Obama's court, and as a result of his tax-driven, politically motivated intransigence, he will be held responsible for any economic crisis that follows.
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