However the cuts fall, Light at NYU says the Washington Monument ploy, also known as the Firemen First principle, is at work.
It goes like this: Put someone's budget at risk and the first thing you'll hear is a threat to close a cherished national symbol or lay off firefighters and police, when in fact there are other ways to cut spending.
It so happens the Washington Monument is already closed, for earthquake repair. But Obama indulged in the Firemen First principle quite literally.
He appeared at the White House in front of officers in blue uniforms to warn of the consequences of the sequester. "Emergency responders like the ones who are here today â¿¿ their ability to help communities respond to and recover from disasters will be degraded."
FBI and Border Patrol furloughs are expected. Still, the White House has directed agencies to avoid cuts presenting "risks to life, safety or health" and to minimize harm to crucial services.
The law gives little flexibility to agencies to protect favored programs, except for big ones specifically exempted from the automatic cuts, such as Social Security, Medicare, Medicaid and veterans benefits. There's only so much latitude to move money among accounts.
But not everything is cast in stone. The Small Business Administration, for example, should be able to avoid furloughs because of early retirements already achieved, said Karen Mills, the administrator. And she said declining demand for one type of loan should free up money for other lending, so "we are not slowing down giving loans to anyone."
In the partial government shutdown during his presidency, Bill Clinton and his officials told some tall tales and sketched dark scenarios that didn't come to pass, though some might have if the crisis had lasted weeks or months longer. The shutdown played out over two installments totaling 26 days from mid-November 1995 to early January 1996.