Tuesday, May 12, 2009

Budget Charades

There are plenty of empty and annoying rituals in official Washington: the pompous playing of "Hail to the Chief" when the president materializes; tiresome standing ovations during the annual State of the Union address; the State of the Union address itself. But among the most silly, at least in modern Washington, is the ritualistic axing of wasteful and superfluous federal programs in the president's budget.

Every president in recent memory, no matter the party, proposed bringing the hatchet down on wasteful, duplicative, anachronistic programs. And each president, when he did so, knew full well that none of the targeted programs would be eliminated or even cut, once Congress intervened. The best any bona fide budget hawk can hope for, realistically, is holding the growth of such programs to 5 or 10 percent in the next budget cycle.

Barack Obama late last week joined the pantheon of recent presidents to go through these meaningless motions, by offering up his own list of 121 program cuts or eliminations -- many of which I recognize from my days fighting wasteful government spending at Citizens Against Government Waste, back in the mid-1990s. That's how long some of these cutting-edge ideas have been around. It's especially incongruous (and cynical) in Obama's case, however, since he, like his Republican predecessor, is simultaneously proposing expenditures that will grow government and lead to Mount Everest-like deficits for as far as the eye can see.

Here's how the charade unfolds, in three acts. First, the president inserts the program cuts into his budget blueprint, generating straight-faced coverage in the mainstream media. Millions of Americans read the stories, uncritically, and conclude that the president is watching their backs -- that not everyone in Washington is a free-spending scoundrel. In Act 2, media and congressional skepticism build. Act 3 of the charade takes place when Congress rises up in opposition to the cuts, acting out of protectiveness (over these "critically important" federal programs) or territoriality (by asserting the "power of the purse strings").

That's all, folks. Show over. Bring the curtain down. Come back next year for a replay.

This all unfolds just as the president knew it would before Act 1 began. But that's OK. The president henceforth can claim that he tried to eliminate wasteful spending, even though, in the case of Obama and Bush, he is blowing the lid off all fiscal restraint. Presidents in this way can feign frugality, and show solidarity with the beleaguered taxpayer, all the while knowing that these cuts don't have a snowball's chance of actually occurring.

Many of the proposed cuts merely get handed down from president to president, like chipped pieces of White House china. The Wall Street Journal's coverage at least noted that many of Obama's proposed cuts came from a predecessor's list. "White House officials acknowledged the similarity between Mr. Obama's 121 program cuts and consolidations and $17 billion savings and Mr. Bush's 151 programs and $18 billion savings proposed for 2009," reported the Journal. "About 40% of the programs Mr. Obama has targeted for elimination or consolidation come directly off a similar list proposed by Mr. Bush over the past two budget seasons on Capitol Hill. Congress largely ignored those proposed cuts."

Much as Congress will largely ignore these proposals, in pursuit of parochial ends. One of Obama's cuts, for instance, would eliminate a way over-budget, way behind-schedule effort to build not 1 or 2 or 3 new presidential helicopters, but 28 of them, at an estimated cost of $13 billion. But New York Rep. Maurice Hinchey, in whose district the program means jobs, "vowed to force the White House to accept delivery" of the helicopters, reports The Washington Post. "The helicopter program, which cost $835 million this year, supports 800 jobs in Hinchey's district." "I do think there's a good chance we can save it," said Hinchey.

And so it goes, all down the line. Almost every program Obama targeted has a small but vocal constituency, and powerful congressional patrons, who will fight like Comanches to keep it alive. Some do it because they sincerely believe these programs serve the national interest, but most do it because it serves their self-interest, as in Hinchey's case, and because they can.

It's a power thing, according to David Williams, Vice President for Policy at Citizens Against Government Waste, who by now knows the ritual by heart. “This is the same dance that is done every year with the President and Congress; the President proposes budget cuts and Congress ignores them," says Williams. "This has less to with political affiliation and more to do with Congress refusing to relinquish any control of spending. Even with both chambers and the executive branch run by the same party, spending money in Washington D.C. is still the ultimate expression of power. And Congress will not give up that power willingly. The bottom line is: that the less money Congress has to spend, the less power it has.”

And that's not a dynamic that even Super President, Barack Obama, can change.

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