How much discretion does President Obama have on sequester cuts?

This vital question has been unclear to me since the sequester loomed large on the political horizon. Predictably, it is difficult to find a straight answer on it given the incentives both parties have to blame each other for whatever real or imagined pain results from the sequester’s across-the-board cuts, which are set to take effect on March 1st.

The House Democrats, for example, answer like this:

11. How much discretion does the President have in how the sequester is applied?

Almost none. The President does not have discretion to vary the size of the cut to agency budgets. The President has exercised his authority to exempt military personnel accounts from sequestration, which did not change the total defense sequester – the amount of the sequester on other defense programs will increase. All agencies will continue to have their existing transfer authority with the limitations that are specific to each agency.

That answer doesn’t really tell us much. We already knew the percentage amounts are set in the legislation.

The best answer I’ve been able to find comes from Barry Anderson, a former senior official at the Office of Management and Budget, which is the White House office directed to budget for the various federal government departments and agencies.

Time’s Swampland reports:

The number of people in the federal government with intimate knowledge of what will happen if the sequester takes effect on March 1 is likely tiny — perhaps as small as three, says Barry Anderson, a former senior official at the Office of Management and Budget (OMB). Anderson knows how complicated the process is to predict because he helped direct the last sequester, in 1991. “I’ve been in therapy for the past 22 years,” he jokes.

According to Anderson, OMB has discretion over how to apportion the roughly 5.3% cut to each affected nonmilitary program and 8% hit to each defense program. “The agencies have nothing to do with this,” Anderson says. “It is OMB’s choice.” Deciding how to spread resources to minimize the pain is a tricky task, not least because government agencies have different burdens at different times.

No one said it was going to be easy, but it appears more and more certain the president, through the OMB, has the authority to target the spending reductions where they are needed most. That makes much of the discussion around what the sequester demands moot. If it’s the president’s choice, he has chosen to make the cuts as painful as possible so to build political support to keep spending ever-rising.

That is not leadership.