"[This is] the largest annual spending cut in our history. ... Today we acted on behalf of our children's future."
PRESIDENT OBAMA, IN A TELEVISED SPEECH, APRIL 8, 2011.
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"Never before has any Congress made dramatic cuts such as those that are in this final legislation. The near $40 billion reduction in nondefense spending is nearly five times larger than any other cut in history ..."
U.S. REP. Hal Rogers, R-Ky., chairman of the House
Appropriations Committee, April 12, 2011.
Not quite two years ago, Republicans goaded by their newly elected Tea Party members had their first major showdown over federal deficits with the Democrat in the White House. At the last moment, a bipartisan, bicameral deal was reached that promised savings so huge as to justify the politicians' noble boasts. What wasn't to love?
Now comes the Washington Post's David A. Fahrenthold with a bracing autopsy on how this alleged fiscal frugality has played out. Fahrenthold, who covers Congress, writes that the agreement "turned out to be an epic kind of Washington illusion. It was stuffed with gimmicks that made the cuts seem far bigger -- and the politicians far bolder -- than they actually were. ... Today an examination of 12 of the largest cuts shows that, thanks in part to these gimmicks, federal agencies absorbed $23 billion in reductions without losing a single employee."
•The Transportation Department claimed a $280 million cut for canceling a tunnel project ... that had been canceled six months earlier. Less lucrative but more ridiculous was a "cut" of $375,000 for a project on a Columbus, Ind., road that doesn't exist.
•Census Bureau officials got credit for cutting $6 billion simply by obeying the calendar -- they promised not to hold the expensive 2010 census again in 2011.
•Congress "cut" $14.6 million from its own budget to build the Capitol Visitor Center. "That changed nothing," the Post reports. "The center was already built."
•Faced with orders to slash a daunting $6.2 billion from military construction, the Pentagon "cut" $5 billion it already had said it wouldn't need to spend in 2011. "Beyond that, defense officials found 94 existing projects where bids had already come in lower than expected. They added up those savings: $397 million. Then they looked for the bureaucratic dead: projects that had already been nixed for unrelated reasons. There was a sniper range in Louisiana. A headquarters in Djibouti. Air base upgrades in Guam. That was $568 million more."
Officials acknowledged to the Post that the military had to cut only one project it wanted to keep: a medical administration building and two warehouses at a base in Qatar. "Total real-world savings: $25.2 million."
The newspaper did find five large cuts that turned out to be real, although none of them caused an agency in Washington to shed personnel. Instead agencies reduced money that passed through them to states and localities for water restoration, community development, repair of dilapidated homes and other projects.
This sort of journalism -- exploring the dark innards of federal agency budgets -- is extraordinarily time-consuming. We're grateful to Fahrenthold and his editors for the effort. Just as we're suspicious of three departments -- State, Homeland Security and Agriculture -- and the Federal Emergency Management Agency, which for a month ducked the Post's questions on $1.9 billion in alleged cuts.
The bottom line: Keep this truth-seeking top of mind when politicians cavil this month about the scheduled March 1 "sequester," some $85 billion in across-the-board spending cuts to be imposed unless Congress and the White House reach a deal to avoid them. In his State of the Union address Tuesday night, the president warned that these "harsh, arbitrary cuts would jeopardize our military readiness. They'd devastate priorities like education, energy, and medical research. They would certainly slow our recovery, and cost us hundreds of thousands of jobs."
Maybe, maybe not. We, too, have spoken against across-the-board savings -- unless Congress and the White House wouldn't instead make surgical cuts. Now that we see how federal bureaucracies gamed the supposedly thoughtful, line-by-line cutting of 2011, the sequester looks like the only way to exact genuine reductions in spending.