How the GOP Can Call the President's Bluff
Give the president the flexibility to make the cuts he wants, then hold him accountable.
The $85 billion in spending that will eventually be cut after the sequester kicks in amounts to around two cents on the dollar in the overall federal budget. That hasn't kept Mr. Obama and his team from trying to scare the bejesus out of Americans about the spending reductions.
On Friday, Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood said he'd have to furlough 5,000 air-traffic controllers. On Saturday, the president warned in his weekly radio address that thousands of teachers "will be laid off," and "tens of thousands of parents will have to scramble to find child care."
On Sunday, the White House released a report for each state detailing how many unsafe bridges would be left unrepaired. On Monday, Interior Secretary Ken Salazar threatened to close all National Park campgrounds. Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano said she'd have to sideline 5,000 border agents. Immigration and Customs Enforcement announced it would release from detention several hundred illegal immigrants.
This is all hogwash. After the sequester, this fiscal year's federal budget ($3.553 trillion) will still be larger than last year's ($3.538 trillion). Last year, the border was patrolled, emergency responders arrived when called, and airplanes left on time and landed safely.
The federal budget is now $446 billion, 14% bigger than the last annual budget of Mr. Obama's predecessor. Washington surely can survive a modest retrenchment of 2.3%. Virtually every family, business, state and local government has made deeper cuts than that in recent years.
Mr. Obama has pounded away at the alleged damage of the sequester's across-the-board cuts. House Republicans should call his bluff and pass legislation giving cabinet secretaries flexibility to transfer funds between accounts so that sequester cuts come from less important activities. If the Democratic-controlled Senate blocks its passage, at least voters will see how cynical the president's rhetoric is. But if Senate Democrats and Mr. Obama go along (as they would), then the responsibility to cut in a prudent manner would be on the president and his cabinet.
What if the administration then slashes programs to inflict maximum political pain on Republicans? The answer is congressional oversight. Using its power of the purse, House committees should summon cabinet secretaries and hold them accountable.
Take the Department of Transportation. Its budget last year was $75 billion; this year it is $89 billion. If Mr. LaHood believes he should start accumulating his $600 million in sequester savings by furloughing air-traffic controllers, the House Transportation Committee can ask why he didn't begin by cutting expenditures like Alaska sightseeing trains ($72 million), old-fashioned trolleys in Missouri ($22 million plus) and sidewalks to nowhere in Florida ($1.1 million)? These were all Department of Transportation outlays identified by Oklahoma Sen. Tom Coburn last October.
Or consider the Federal Communications Commission. News reports suggest that the FCC will achieve its required $28 million in savings by laying off employees and delaying equipment purchases.
If it does, the House Commerce Committee can ask the FCC chairman to explain why he's not cutting the waste in the $2.2 billion-a-year program the FCC runs to provide free cellphones for low-income individuals. That program is riddled with fraud: An FCC survey of its five biggest providers found that 41% of participants were either ineligible or didn't respond to requests to prove they were eligible.
Serious budget-cutting isn't just cutting less essential activities. For example, Mr. Salazar could keep campgrounds open by leasing the Rocky Mountain shale gas acreage that he previously declared off-limits for development and withdrew from auction.
Giving Mr. Obama flexibility on where to make cuts will temporarily give him greater power. But it will also empower House Republicans, who exercise oversight. If Mr. Obama lays off border patrolmen and air-traffic controllers, and undermines military readiness, he'll rile up a public already deeply skeptical of government spending. When a January Reason-Rupe poll asked about wasteful spending, the average response was that the federal government "squanders 50 cents out of every tax dollar." If Mr. Obama cuts muscle, voters will wonder why he didn't cut fat.
Congressional oversight hearings—with their made-for-TV drama—will provide Republicans a highly visible national platform to press for restraining spending and make Mr. Obama stop crying wolf and start governing responsibly.
A version of this article appeared February 28, 2013, on page A13 in the U.S. edition of The Wall Street Journal, with the headline: How the GOP Can Call the President's Bluff, and online at WSJ.com.