Analysis: Living With the Nuances, Ironies, and Flexibility of Sequestration

A terminal at O'Hare airport in Chicago. A terminal at O'Hare airport in Chicago. Nam Y. Huh/AP

I don’t know about you, but I can’t wait for the Twitpic Sequester Olympics.

Brad Woodhouse, communications director for the Democratic National Committee, got the games going late Tuesday with a picture from Chicago’s O’Hare Airport and a long line of weary travelers. The Twitpic, shot by Jim Neal, a Democrat who ran for the Senate in North Carolina in 2008, was supposedly of a three-hour wait to pass through O’Hare’s customs checkpoint.

There’s no reason to doubt the authenticity of the Twitpic. But long lines at O’Hare’s customs checkpoint are nothing new, and sequestration can in no way be blamed—at least, not yet. Crain’s Chicago Business wrote on Dec. 24 how O’Hare customs checks were long, inefficient, and a threat to tourism. “While most passengers are processed in less than an hour, customs delays of two or three hours or more are increasingly common at O’Hare, even though international passenger arrivals are down more than 8 percent from a 2007 peak of nearly 5 million,” Crain’s wrote. “The problem is expected to get much worse next summer, when five new foreign carriers start serving O’Hare.”

What the Twitpic heralds, however, fills me with dread. I can see into Twitter’s future and espy raucous, roiling debates (the kind that would make Woodward and Sperling blush) over the accuracy of Twit­pics of airport baggage lines, Customs ports of entry, border-crossing stations—any place where federal workers either are or aren’t. Behold the Twitpic Sequester Olympics, wherein part of our political debate will be consumed with pictures and commentary about how much of our nation does or does not resemble the DMV. How stirring.

Oh well, sequestration is here to stay. You could see that on President Obama’s face as he glumly settled in with his still-unformed Cabinet for the first time in the second term. Obama said the federal government would “manage it as best we can.” The cuts come to $85 billion in budget authority over two years. The Congressional Budget Office, by the way, estimates the actual reduction in outlays this year will be $42 billion.

Management is an open question now, because it is hard to know when the budget cuts will cause noticeable disruptions. Even Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano appeared perplexed when, after telling a Politico breakfast on Monday that major airports were “already” experiencing sequestration-induced delays, specifics proved elusive.

“I want to say O’Hare, I want to say LAX [Los Angeles International], I want to say Atlanta [Hartsfield], but I’d have to check,” Napolitano said. “The New York airports got through OK, but that is going to be temporary.”

But those airports reported no serious delays—hence the Woodhouse Twitpic.

Beneath these early takes on sequestration is the intriguing question of flexibility. How much does the federal government have and can it, for example, shift resources to protect vital services and cannibalize less important tasks for the greater good? There appear to be two solid and accurate answers—the first one well-understood, the second less so.

On the question of the across-the-board nature of the discretionary cuts, there is no discretion. Agencies and departments must cut by the percentage assigned by the Office of Management and Budget. OMB calculates the cuts as 8 percent for defense and 5 percent for non-defense over the fiscal year. That translates to 13 percent and 9 percent, respectively, when compressed into the seven remaining months of the budget year. Those cuts are legally binding and must be made.

What about what remains? Isn’t there discretion over what sequestration’s supposed meat cleaver leaves behind? It cannot all be gristle.

OMB offers a valuable clue. In guidance sent to all agencies on Feb. 27, Danny Werfel, OMB controller, instructed “heightened scrutiny of certain types of activities funded from sequestered accounts.” Specifically, Werfel advised agencies to be careful in spending “post-sequestration” dollars on “hiring new personnel, issuing discretionary monetary awards to employees, (and) incurring obligations for new training, conferences, and travel.”

Reads like flexibility to me. Agencies can manage and prioritize. In fact, Werfel said all planning—before and after sequestration—“must be guided by the principle of protecting the agency’s mission to serve the public to the greatest extent practicable.” Apparently, the White House no longer considers taxpayer tours part of its mission.

Republicans have been needling the administration mercilessly on the point of flexibility, begging Obama to employ it. That, of course, accepts the premise that these spending cuts could harm public services and bite hard at home.

There’s another hilarious curiosity about the GOP’s sudden gushing enthusiasm for federal bureaucratic flexibility. May I rudely remind Republicans that congressional earmarks—an industry that grew exponentially under their stewardship of Congress—were justified (for public consumption, anyway) as an instrument to frustrate meddling federal bureaucrats who could not be trusted to manage taxpayer dollars.

In other words, Republicans trust themselves, but not bureaucrats, to spend tax dollars. And they trust bureaucrats, but not themselves, to cut spending. I’m glad we’ve got that cleared up.

One last point. Over the weekend, Obama began calling Republican senators in search of partners for a deficit-reduction deal that might include tax reform and serious reductions in entitlements such as Medicare and Medicaid. This is the “grand bargain” Holy Grail that has played, at times, more humorously in Washington than Monty Python in London. After losing the election, GOP leaders began to see sequestration as the best—and quite possibly only—mechanism to force Obama back into serious “grand bargain” conversations.

Stay up-to-date with federal news alerts and analysis — Sign up for GovExec's email newsletters.
Close [ x ] More from GovExec

Thank you for subscribing to newsletters from
We think these reports might interest you:

  • Sponsored by G Suite

    Cross-Agency Teamwork, Anytime and Anywhere

    Dan McCrae, director of IT service delivery division, National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA)

  • Data-Centric Security vs. Database-Level Security

    Database-level encryption had its origins in the 1990s and early 2000s in response to very basic risks which largely revolved around the theft of servers, backup tapes and other physical-layer assets. As noted in Verizon’s 2014, Data Breach Investigations Report (DBIR)1, threats today are far more advanced and dangerous.

  • Sponsored by One Identity

    One Nation Under Guard: Securing User Identities Across State and Local Government

    In 2016, the government can expect even more sophisticated threats on the horizon, making it all the more imperative that agencies enforce proper identity and access management (IAM) practices. In order to better measure the current state of IAM at the state and local level, Government Business Council (GBC) conducted an in-depth research study of state and local employees.

  • Sponsored by Aquilent

    The Next Federal Evolution of Cloud

    This GBC report explains the evolution of cloud computing in federal government, and provides an outlook for the future of the cloud in government IT.

  • Sponsored by LTC Partners, administrators of the Federal Long Term Care Insurance Program

    Approaching the Brink of Federal Retirement

    Approximately 10,000 baby boomers are reaching retirement age per day, and a growing number of federal employees are preparing themselves for the next chapter of their lives. Learn how to tackle the challenges that today's workforce faces in laying the groundwork for a smooth and secure retirement.

  • Sponsored by Hewlett Packard Enterprise

    Cyber Defense 101: Arming the Next Generation of Government Employees

    Read this issue brief to learn about the sector's most potent challenges in the new cyber landscape and how government organizations are building a robust, threat-aware infrastructure

  • Sponsored by Aquilent

    GBC Issue Brief: Cultivating Digital Services in the Federal Landscape

    Read this GBC issue brief to learn more about the current state of digital services in the government, and how key players are pushing enhancements towards a user-centric approach.


When you download a report, your information may be shared with the underwriters of that document.