Why It’s Tough To Cut the Budget By Killing Programs

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It’s not easy to cut the federal budget.

On Monday, the White House released its 2011 budget. The numbers are daunting—particularly the projected $1.6 trillion deficit. But the Obama administration is doing all it can to show it’s serious about restraining government spending. With this budget, it proposed $23 billion in savings that would come from terminating, reducing, or squeezing 126 government programs.

That’s not a big amount in budget terms, though it’s a symbolic start. Yet the breakdown of those numbers suggests that President Obama is not likely to achieve any truly significant savings by eliminating whole programs. 

The budget notes that of the $23 billion in proposed savings, only $8.36 billion would come from the discretionary termination of programs. And though 47 programs have been targeted by the White House for extermination, most of the savings would result from killing two programs: the military’s C-17 cargo plane ($2.5 billion) and NASA’s Constellation Systems program, which was initiated by President George W. Bush in 2005 to return astronauts to the moon and then send them to Mars ($3.5 billion). These two programs account for almost 75 percent of the discretionary termination cuts. There’s not much of a payoff for the administration if it does end—as it proposes to do—the Christopher Columbus Fellowship Foundation, which was established in 1992 to fund research designed “to produce new discoveries in all fields of endeavor for the benefit of mankind.” Total savings here: $1 million.

It’s a Washington cliché: every program is somebody’s baby. But the C-17 program is especially so. Worse, it is a vampire. It cannot be killed. Last year, the administration tried to end production of the plane and save $2.5 billion. It says that with the existing fleet of C-17s (and those already ordered) and C-5 cargo aircraft, the Defense Department can meet its “mobility needs, even under the most stressing scenarios.” But the Senate in October voted 68-30 against grounding the program. (The move to cancel production of more C-17s was led on Capitol Hill by Senator John McCain). This Boeing program employs more than 30,000 workers in 43 states. So lots of politicians in both parties fought for it—and will continue doing so.

The Obama administration might have an easier time deep-sixing NASA’s moon program. It notes that the troubled program has been behind schedule and cannot achieve its goals without multi-billion-dollar budget increases. The program, the budget says, “was not clearly aimed at meeting today’s national priorities.” Still, the program has its political champions. “I, for one, intend to stand up and fight for NASA, and for the thousands of people who stand to lose their jobs,” said Democratic Senator Bill Nelson of Florida.

Nelson may have a tougher time than Capitol Hill fans of the C-17. But the hardest job by far is finding whole programs to wipe out. Banking on a C-17 termination to achieve budget savings is quite a risk.

You can follow David Corn’s postings and media appearances via Twitter.

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