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EDITORIAL: Baby steps on budget cuts

It’s easy to cut billions from the federal leviathan

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Politicians love to cry crocodile tears about how hard it is to cut government spending. An amendment introduced Dec. 15 by Sen. Tom Coburn, Oklahoma Republican, would have saved more than $156 billion over five years without very much hardship.

The Sooner State senator offered his proposal as a way to "offset" or "pay for" the unprecedented extension of unemployment benefits that was included in the bill that salvaged the George W. Bush-era tax cuts for another two years. Those unearned "benefits" - taken directly from the pockets of taxpayers yet unborn - will be expensive. To save $156 billion, Mr. Coburn recommended cutbacks to or elimination of 50 programs and spending policies. Few of the cuts are controversial; all but five were proposed by the recent bipartisan federal debt commission or even the otherwise extravagant Obama administration.

Politically, the toughest cut would be to reduce the federal work force by 10 percent to save $13.2 billion over five years. The federal employee unions would scream bloody murder. But since the recession began, the nonmilitary federal work force has grown by 12 percent, or 240,000 workers, according to James Sherk of the Heritage Foundation.

Mr. Coburn endorses a federal salary freeze for three years rather than the two instituted by the administration. This is hardly draconian. The average federal worker makes "hourly cash earnings 22 percent above the average private worker's, controlling for observable skills and characteristics," the Heritage Foundation reports. When benefits are included, the discrepancy grows: "The average private-sector employer pays $9,882 per employee in annual benefits, while the federal government pays an average of $32,115 per employee." Mr. Coburn also notes that federal workers owe $3 billion in unpaid taxes; it should be easy enough for the government to garnish wages from its own employees.

To lead by example, Mr. Coburn would have Congress and the White House cut their own budgets by 15 percent. The age of electronic records could even be recognized in the corridors of power by capping government printing costs, saving $2 billion in five years. Ditto for $2 billion in federal travel costs by promoting more teleconferencing. At least $4.6 billion could be saved in foreign aid not by cutting assistance but merely by slowing its growth.

Finally, even the most demagogic class warrior and the most avid conservative should agree that millionaires shouldn't receive unemployment benefits. The Internal Revenue Service claims that more than 2,800 households with incomes of more than $1 million in 2008 received $18.6 million in unemployment assistance. The government doesn't need to subsidize their leisure for very long.

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