Fiscal Nanosurgery

April 22, 2009

Fiscal Nanosurgery


Federal Spending: When President Obama directed his Cabinet to cut $100 million out of the budget, it looked at first like a misprint. That’s barely enough to count as a rounding error.

Read More: Budget & Tax Policy

Indeed, the only hard part about meeting the president’s goal will be finding programs small enough to fit under that bar. In making the announcement, Obama talked about earning the public’s trust on spending. Apparently, he thinks people put a low value on trust.

Measured against the $3.6 trillion budget Obama issued weeks ago, the cuts amount to 0.0028%. And assuming each of his Cabinet officials shares the burden equally — and how could they not? — they each only have to come up with about $7 million in savings.

Perhaps the president is counting on taxpayers not being able to tell the difference between millions, billions and trillions. They all seem like such big numbers.

So to get a real sense of just how little is being asked of his Cabinet, consider:

• If Obama were your dietician, you’d only have to give up an apple a year to abide by his diet plan.

• If he wanted you to cut your gasoline consumption, you’d have to drive just one-third of a mile less in a year.

• And if he wanted you to waste less water, you’d only have to reduce the time you spend in the shower on one day of the year by 30 seconds.

Indeed, the only challenging part of Obama’s challenge may be finding ways to cut only $100 million. In an operation as gargantuan as the federal government, even little programs cost a lot. And trimming a little waste and fraud here and there will net you more than $100 million in savings.

The Congressional Budget Office, for example, puts out a comprehensive list of potential spending cuts — identifying programs that have outlived their usefulness, are wasteful, inefficient, prone to fraud, etc. The savings add up to hundreds of billions with a “b” instead of millions with an “m.”

Just canceling the federal Beach Replenishment Program (who knew there was such a thing?) would save a bit more than $100 million a year. Ending the “Essential Air Service” program, a “transitional” program put in place 30 years ago when the airline industry was being deregulated, would save $113 million a year.

Even doing something as simple as verifying the income levels for Pell Grant recipients would save more than $150 million a year.

Getting Amtrak to eliminate its five biggest money-losing routes would spare taxpayers about $250 million a year. Just eliminating the Presidential Election Campaign Fund, which Obama didn’t use in 2008, would save an average of more than $100 million.

Of course, if it’s too hard to find small enough cuts in the CBO guidebook, the administration could always look to the pork-laden omnibus spending bill Congress just passed and target some of those earmarks. Kill off the $44 million tucked in there for military chapels and the $41 million in earmarks for presidential libraries, and his Cabinet’s work is almost done.

Perhaps this is President Obama’s idea of change you can believe in. Cutting government spending in Washington has always proved difficult.  By setting his sights so incredibly low, Obama might actually make it look easy.


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