As much as the war on terror and the economy, the ballooning federal deficit is a certainty the next president will have to face, and plenty of public-interest groups are eager to help the evasive candidates apply the scalpel or hatchet where need be.
In each of their three debates, the two major presidential candidates revealed little when asked to lay out specific spending cuts.
Sen. Barack Obama, the Democratic nominee, named one program: Medicare Advantage, which he described as a $15-billion-a-year subsidy to insurance companies. His Republican rival, Sen. John McCain, provided a beefier list, which included stopping a program to market agricultural products overseas, eliminating ethanol subsidies and vetoing bills with earmarks.
Several groups have compiled examples of questionable programs, including annual subsidies for wild blueberries ($10 million) or to peanut growers ($140 million); the Market Access Program that helps run ads for U.S. companies such as Ocean Spray and Sunkist overseas ($45 million); or payments for farmers to grow more corn for ethanol production ($4 billion).
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Federal spending is nearing $3 trillion a year, an increase of $1 trillion during President Bush's eight years in office. Citizens Against Government Waste (CAGW) and the National Taxpayers Union (NTU) see room for hundreds of billions of dollars in budget savings.
CAGW President Thomas A. Schatz and NTU President Duane Parde sent a letter Thursday to the candidates offering their help and highlighting a list compiled by NTU of 2,150 spending cut bills "introduced in the last nine Congresses that totaled over $9.5 trillion, only 69 of which were eventually signed into law for a savings of $89.6 billion."
CAGW said it compiled a mountain of waste called "Prime Cuts," with 701 budget cut recommendations throughout the government that total $1.6 trillion over five years.
During the third presidential debate Wednesday, when moderator Bob Schieffer asked Mr. Obama and Mr. McCain to name programs they would cut to reduce a nearly $500 billion budget deficit, Mr. Obama offered one suggestion: the $15 billion Medicare Advantage program, which provides a different set of coverage at a slightly higher cost to the government.
Mr. McCain's list was longer, though both candidates promised a new attitude rather than specifics.
"We need to eliminate a whole host of programs that don't work, and I want to go through the federal budget line by line, page by page," Mr. Obama said, adding that his "scalpel" approach would weed out only the badly performing programs.
Mr. McCain said that's not good enough.
"We can take a hatchet and a scalpel to this budget," he said, calling for a freeze on the small part of the budget that falls outside of spending on defense, veterans programs and entitlements.
The Obama campaign denied that the Democrat is avoiding any mention of cutting or eliminating wasteful spending.
"Restoring fiscal discipline in Washington is one of Barack Obama's top priorities, which is why he's laid out a responsible approach that nonpartisan experts say will cut spending," Obama campaign spokesman Reid Cherlin told The Washington Times in an e-mail Friday.
"He'll do that by responsibly ending the war in Iraq, where we're currently spending $10 billion per month, and ending spending practices that aren't working effectively for the American people, like unnecessary subsidies for health maintenance organizations," Mr. Cherlin said.
Among the programs targeted for cuts or elimination, Obama campaign officials said, were Reading First, a $1-billion-a-year reading program; replacing subsidies to student loan providers with the government's Direct Loan program, saving $4 billion a year; and cutting and redirecting the Economic Development Administration, a 1960s Great Society anti-poverty program that has been exploited by wasteful earmarks benefiting wealthy communities.
For fiscal 2008, the deficit jumped to a record $455 billion, reversing a three-year slide from the previous high in 2004 of $412 billion all the way to $162 billion last year. The one-year jump was fueled by both a drop in revenue and a substantial increase in spending.
The Bush administration's Program Assessment Rating Tool (PART) "found savings of $47.5 billion in ineffective programs that could be eliminated," said Andrew Moylan, NTU's government affairs manager. "There are many other examples where large savings can be achieved."
Mr. Moylan said the issue of wasteful spending, which grew into a major initiative under the Reagan administration, "has been given short shrift from both presidential campaigns. They have been much more specific about ways they would increase spending than the way they would decrease spending."
"So far, we haven't heard from them," he added.
The list of disposable spending programs that both organizations have compiled is long and costly, but legislation to eliminate them has relatively few supporters in Congress. When Rep. Steve Chabot, Ohio Republican, offered an amendment to the agriculture appropriation bill on May 23, 2007, to eliminate the Market Access Program, the House rejected it by a vote of 342-79.