It turns out that the "across the board cuts" of Sequester leave plenty of flexibility for the Obama administration. Within a rather large budget category (in many cases), the feds would be free to prioritize. The devil is in the details, and it turns out that the legislation was somewhat carelessly written. Review & Outlook of the Wall Street Journal pursued the legalities:
Programs, projects and activities are a technical category of the federal budget, but the sequester actually occurs at the roughly 1,200 broader units known as budget accounts. Some accounts are small, but others contain hundreds of PPAs and the larger accounts run to billions of dollars. For the Pentagon in particular, the distinction between PPAs and accounts is huge. This means in most cases the President has the room to protect his "investments" while managing the fiscal transition over time.
Congress might have intended for the sequester to apply to PPAs, but they also wrote a sloppy law at the 11th hour. The Budget Control Act of 2011 disinterred the lapsed sequester rules of the Gramm-Rudman Deficit Control Act of 1985, though without anyone looking at the details.
Gramm-Rudman said the sequester applies to accounts, not PPAs, under a temporary "part-year" budget. As it happens the government is operating under just such a continuing resolution now, not a normal appropriations bill. If Congress returned to regular order in 2014 or later, the sequester would indeed trickle down to PPAs.
The White House has even more discretion than this. When Gramm-Rudman led to a 4.3% sequester in 1986, Congress passed a special bill that created the category of PPAs and spent 1,119 pages defining what they were for 1986. Congress has never done anything of the sort since, and thus as the government has grown PPA definitions now vary[.]
The practical meaning of this is that President Obama will own responsibility for the cuts he has already started making, even before the Sequester even takes effect. He is making the choice to punish Americans in order to get his way. That is a simple and powerful phrase, and the Republicans should start using it at every opportunity.
Normally, the media could be counted upon to sell Obama's version. But even the wizards of persuasion can't overcome the reality that downsizing has been a prominent part of organizational life across America, particularly among the MSM.
The battle is far from won, but President Obama does not have any good options if the GOP plays its hand correctly.