Bob Woodward Asks Why Obama Won't Become a Dictator and Ignore Budget Control Act

Reporting on Politics and Policy.
Feb. 27 2013 10:42 AM

Bob Woodward Asks Why Obama Won't Become a Dictator and Ignore Budget Control Act

TPM captures video of the strangest media performance by a reporter so far today: Bob Woodward on Morning Joe. Ever since the White House and a bunch of reporters challenged the analysis of Woodward's Friday column about sequestration, the legendary reporter's been insisting that his targets are merely "confused." He went that route again on the show, scoffing at the White House for fumbling its response to the crisis.

David Weigel David Weigel

David Weigel is a Slate political reporter. 

Then he wandered off into the woods without a bathrobe.

Can you imagine Ronald Reagan sitting there saying, "Oh, by the way, I can't do this because of some budget document?" Or George W. Bush saying, "You know, I'm not gonna invade Iraq, because I can't get the aircraft carriers I need?" Or even Bill Clinton saying, "You know, I'm not going to attack Saddam Hussein's intelligence headquarters" -- as he did when Clinton was President -- because of some budget document? Under the Constitution, the President is Commander in Chief and employs the force. And so we now have the President going out, because of this piece of paper and this agreement, I can't do what I need to do to protect the country.
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Well, first of all: No, it's not really hard to imagine Ronald Reagan ignoring a budget document and making some freelance national security decisions. Second, asking why the president won't simply ignored a law that he signed strikes me as a particularly crazy brand of what my colleague Matthew Yglesias called "BipartisanThink." The 2011 Budget Control Act is very clear: It cuts the appropriations for defense and non-defense discretionary spending over the next 10 years. Here, you can read it.

Defense function reduction.
--OMB shall calculate the reductions to discretionary appropriations and direct spending for each of fiscal years 2013 through 2021 for defense function spending as follows:
``(A) Discretionary.--OMB shall calculate the reduction to discretionary appropriations by--
``(i) taking the total reduction for the defense function allocated for that year under paragraph (4);
``(ii) multiplying by the discretionary spending limit for the revised security category for that year; and
``(iii) dividing by the sum of the discretionary spending limit for the security category and OMB's baseline estimate of nonexempt outlays for direct spending programs within the defense function for that year.

And that's what happened. Congress, which controls appropriations, has never changed this law. The president's abiding by it. The Budget Control Act includes a certain amount of wiggle room for defense spending, but only insofar as it mandates that funds for some defense spending must be replaced by cuts from other defense spending.

If the President uses the authority to exempt any personnel account from sequestration under section 255(f), each account within subfunctional category 051 (other than those military personnel accounts for which the authority provided under section 255(f) has been exercised) shall be further reduced by a dollar amount calculated by multiplying the enacted level of non-exempt budgetary resources in that account at that time by the uniform percentage necessary to offset the total dollar amount by which outlays are not reduced in military personnel accounts by reason of the use of such authority.

That's the law. Congress could always change the law, but Woodward's not having that -- he says it's "madness" for the president to obey the law. Instead of citing the legislation, Woodward turns the argument into a clash of personalities and will. It's a bit like what other media are doing, citing Woodward as an authority in a "fact-checking spat" instead of checking the record.

David Weigel is a Slate political reporter.