Can Anything Be Cut Without Controversy?

With President Obama's FY2012 budget request hot off the presses, the political fight over spending has officially begun.

In the next few months, House Republicans will come up with their counterproposal; Congress may or may not pass a budget resolution; appropriations bills covering every federal agency will advance through committees; House and Senate negotiators will sit down and work things out across a table, behind closed doors; and, finally, President Obama will sign away the actual money, piece by piece.

This will take practically all year. Congress hasn't passed a "budget"--a document that broadly sets funding levels--since April 2009, three months after President Obama was inaugurated. Since October, the federal government has been funded by a series of continuing resolutions, which have extended the same spending levels passed the previous year.

Spending politics are notoriously tricky, and there's a simple, well-known reason why it's difficult to spend less money, in particular: you can't cut anything without offending someone.

We saw this drama play out when the chairmen of Obama's deficit commission, Alan Simpson and Erskine Bowles, recommended cuts to discretionary spending and a higher age for Social Security eligibility. As Derek Thompson pointed out, everyone found something to hate.

So what can you cut? Surely, there must be something noncontroversial.

Well, maybe not.

"It's like a carnival of goring people's oxen," said Leslie Paige, a veteran advocate of deficit reduction as communications director of Citizens Against Government Waste. "Controversy is just part of the deal. That's the landscape, is controversy."

It's politically difficult to cut even programs Paige sees as obviously superfluous. As an example, she pointed to a market-access program to subsidize advertising for U.S. food producers in foreign countries.

"If you're Kraft, if you're Dole, and you've got a produce that you're trying  to break into a foreign market, that's your business," Paige said. "Now, will [cutting that program] be controversial? To them it will be. ...

"This is one of the greatest arguments in favor of not creating new federal programs," Paige said. "You create a new burgeoning constituency... When you start these things, they metastasize, and once you've done that then the lobbyists and the lawyers and marketing people are brought in to create the rationale for keeping it."

Another veteran deficit hawk, National Taxpayers Union Executive Vice President Pete Sepp, is a bit more optimistic--even if he agrees that the process is tough.

"Every program in the federal budget has at least one defender," Sepp said. "If not the recipients of the funds, then the federal employees who disburse it."

Sepp listed a few items on Obama's list of Terminations, Reductions and Savings that could probably be reduced with little noise:

  • $1 million for the Christopher Columbus Fellowship Foundation, chartered to "encourage and support research, study and labor designed to produce new discoveries in all fields of endeavor for the benefit of mankind";
  • $1 million for the Harry S. Truman Scholarship Foundation's scholarships for college juniors interested in government or public service;
  • $1 million for the Bart J. Stupak Olympic Scholarship Program for Olympic-aspiring students
  • $42 million for the Byrd Honors Scholarship for promising high school students (side note: it's fitting that one of the larger scholarship programs is named after the late Sen. Robert Byrd, the legendary appropriator from West Virginia);
  • $5 million for Department of Agriculture grants for public broadcasting companies to convert to digital transmission
  • $43 million for the Emergency Steel Guaranteed loan program, established in 1999 to provide loan guarantees to qualified U.S. steel companies as private banks were reluctant to lend to them

The paltriness of this list, compared to the rest of the $3.8 trillion that was spent in 2010 for a $1.3 trillion deficit, speaks for itself. To break even the $1 billion threshold in savings, bigger chunks of the federal budget need to be attacked.

"What I would say is this is a viable start to deficit reduction," Sepp said of making little cuts to programs like those listed above. "But it can't possibly comprise a viable plan in itself."

Sepp pointed to defense spending as a particular area where Congress and the White House can muster the political will to reduce spending as the budget and appropriations process unfolds.

"The administration has put down a very responsible plan for that," Sepp said. "It will be hard for some of the self-described budget hawks in Congress to turn chicken when it comes to defense spending."

Paige, too, is hopeful that deficit reduction really will happen in 2011.

"I'm gonna put my money on the fact that it's gonna happen. It's gotta happen," Paige said. "I'm 100 percent certain that there will be cuts. Obama supports them, and Congress says it supports them."

The question on everyone's mind: How big will those cuts be, and who will feel them?