In an effort to remove the hot-potato issue of excessive government spending from the 2012 presidential campaign, and calling the bluff of congressional Republicans who always seem to favor domestic spending cuts but increased military spending, President Obama suggested the concept of "sequester" in late 2011.
His idea was to reduce the rate of increased spending by 2 percent across the board—on domestic and military spending. To his surprise, the Republicans went along with this. They did so either because they lacked the political fortitude and the political will to designate specifically the unconstitutional and pork barrel federal spending projects to be cut, or because they thought that with the debt of the federal government then approaching $15 trillion (it is now $16.6 trillion and growing), any reductions in spending money the government doesn't have are preferred to no reductions. So, instead of enacting a budget, and instead of recognizing that much of its spending is simply not authorized by the Constitution, Congress enacted the so-called sequester legislation, and the president signed it into law.
The reductions the sequesters require are reductions in the rate of increased spending from those originally planned by Obama and authorized by Congress. Since the federal government has not had a budget in four years, even though federal law requires it to have one every year, these are planned expenditures, not budgetary items, on which the president wants to spend more money. Congress does not feel bound to obey the laws it has written; hence it has disregarded the legal requirement of a budget. Without a budget, the president has great leeway as to how to allocate funds within each department of the executive branch of the federal government.
Nevertheless, even if these sequesters do kick in, the feds will spend more in 2013 than they spent in 2012. That's because the sequesters are not cuts to spending; rather, they are reductions in planned increases in spending. The reductions amount to about two cents for every planned dollar of increased spending for every federal department.
The question remains: What part of each federal department (Justice, Defense, Homeland Security, Agriculture, etc.) will suffer these reduced increases? Here is where this sequester experiment gets dicey.
The president—who once championed the idea of sequesters and even threatened to veto any congressional effort to dismantle them—now has decided he can't live without that additional 2 percent to spend. So, he has gone about the country trying to scare the daylights out of people: Prisoners will be released from federal prisons, soldiers won't have enough bullets in their weapons, we will need to endure five-hour waiting lines at the airports, Social Security checks will be late, and similar nonsense.
If the fears Obama predicts do come to pass, we will have only him to blame. Remember, the sequesters only cut planned increases in spending. Suppose the president planned to hire 100 more soldiers for the Army and agents for the TSA and air traffic controllers for the FAA. Is the president required to hire only 98 of them? Well, under the law, he has a choice. He can hire all 100 and cut back elsewhere, or he can make do on 98 percent of what he has determined are the government's additional needs. But he cannot just intentionally release prisoners or weaken the military or inflict maddening delays on the flying public in order to make his fearful warnings come to pass.
His job is to uphold the Constitution, to make the executive branch of the federal government work. The president has taken an oath to "faithfully execute" his office. The words of the oath are prescribed in the Constitution. The word "faithfully" requires him to enforce the laws whether or not he agrees with them. It also requires him to enforce the laws in such a manner that they make sense—so that the federal government basically performs the services we have grown to expect of it.
I know, we have grown to expect more of the federal government than the Founders dreamed, and far more than we can possibly pay for, and infinitely more than the Constitution authorizes. But that's the good thing about these sequesters: They will force the president to prioritize.
If he prioritizes so that we stay free and safe, so that the government does what we basically have paid it to do, he'll be doing his job and saving us a tiny bit of cash. But if the president enforces the laws so that they hurt rather than work well just so he can say "I told you so" rather than "I'll work with you," then he will be inviting his own political misery or even his own impeachment. And we will have sunk deeper into the abyss of fear, division and red ink that already engulfs us.