Obama’s budget knife takes smaller cuts

President Obama on Monday failed to heed his vow to take an ever-sharper scalpel to the budget during tough economic times, instead proposing $1 billion less in discretionary spending cuts than last year and ensuring bruising fights over his plans to ax manned spaceflight, pet defense projects and a number of popular parks and forest programs in 2011.

Overall, the president’s budget calls for the government to spend $3.83 trillion next year and to run a deficit of about $1.3 trillion, assuming the economy rebounds and tax revenues increase. Mr. Obama predicts federal spending will drop slightly in 2012 to $3.75 trillion before beginning a steady rise to $4.39 trillion by 2015.

The president begged Republicans and Democrats to join an effort to strike a balance between boosting the economy in the short run, while trying to get a handle on deficits over the long term.

“I’m willing to reduce waste in programs I care about, and I’m asking members of Congress to do the same,” Mr. Obama said. “I’m asking Republicans and Democrats alike to take a fresh look at programs they’ve supported in the past to see what’s working and what’s not, and trim back accordingly.”

To help pump up the economy, Mr. Obama proposed increasing spending on clean-energy efforts, scientific research and the Department of Education.

In order to meet his spending targets, Mr. Obama called for a three-year freeze on non-security discretionary spending. The president says the freeze would save $250 billion over 10 years, while not hurting security as the country fights two wars.

But key lawmakers said they’re not going to be bound by the rules of his freeze.

“We will not exceed his requested level for appropriations, but we will also not exempt any department or activity from review, including foreign aid and the Pentagon, because none of them are without waste,” said House Appropriations Committee Chairman David R. Obey, Wisconsin Democrat.

To hit his spending targets, Mr. Obama is proposing more than $23 billion in specific cuts: $10.3 billion in discretionary programs and the rest coming in mandatory spending cuts and administrative savings.

But those discretionary spending cuts are $1.2 billion less than the $11.5 billion he proposed last year, disappointing budget scorekeepers who had hoped for more cuts.

“This year’s cuts seem no more ambitious, and in fact seem a little less ambitious, which is not what I would have hoped,” said Marc Goldwein, policy director at the Committee for a Responsible Federal Budget. “Having proposed a non-security discretionary spending freeze for three years, I would have thought the administration would be a little more aggressive in cutting real waste to meet that freeze.”

Last year Mr. Obama proposed slightly more than $11 billion in discretionary spending cuts and about $6 billion in mandatory spending reductions. When asked about the amount, which came to less than one-half of 1 percent of total spending, the administration said it was a good start for a first-year budget and promised to go deeper in future years.

Of the 2011 cuts, at least 28 of the 77 discretionary programs Mr. Obama proposed cutting are ones he targeted last year.

Among them are the C-17 transport, which the Pentagon says it doesn’t need but which Congress continues to fund and which Mr. Obama wants to reduce from $2.5 billion to zero in 2011. Mr. Obama also called for cutting production of a second engine for the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter, for a savings of $465 million.

Both of those programs are favorites of defense appropriators, who added them back into the 2010 spending bills despite the president’s opposition.

Goodbye, moon

The biggest fight this year, however, could be over Mr. Obama’s effort to end NASA’s Constellation Systems Program, which President George W. Bush pushed as part of his plans to send astronauts back to the moon and then to Mars.

The Obama administration says the program is behind schedule and misguided, given that the U.S. has already landed astronauts on the moon. Peter Orszag, Mr. Obama’s budget director, said the government instead will try to spur private companies to develop space vehicles to service the International Space Station.

“What we’re saying is, let’s redirect that toward longer-range R&D, advanced robotics, research and development, and find those new technologies that will actually allow us to go further in space and not just repeat what we’ve already done, especially in a program that is behind schedule and over budget,” he said.

But Sen. Richard C. Shelby, the top Republican on the spending subcommittee that controls NASA’s budget, said private companies aren’t ready to pick up the slack.”

“On Friday, India announced they will be ready for their first manned spaceflight by 2016,” Mr. Shelby said. “With this administration’s nonsensical NASA budget request, the U.S. will still be working on launching people on rockets that do not exist while Russia, China and India are actually doing it.”

Mr. Obama made other cuts to programs that were flooded with money the previous year. That was the situation for the Great Lakes Restoration Initiative, which Mr. Obama funded at $475 million in 2010 but proposed giving $300 million in 2011.

“Because this is a very large new program, it will be difficult for EPA and its partner federal agencies to spend all of the funds in 2010,” the administration said in proposing the reduction.

Mr. Obama also went after National Heritage Areas. The program, he said, which is supposed to provide seed money for localities to attract tourism, has wrongly become a permanent source of income for some of those areas.

He proposed cutting the $18 million program in half.

Mr. Obama said he had to make painful choices.

“We eliminate one program that provides grants to do environmental cleanup of abandoned buildings. That’s a mission I support, but there are other sources of private and public funds to achieve it,” he said.

Budget winners

Some programs saw big increases in the budget.

The Interior Department’s Land and Water Conservation Fund was boosted by 29 percent, drawing praise from Democrats who said it can help produce jobs but sparking concern among Republicans who said the National Park Service already has a $9 billion maintenance backlog and buying more land will only add to that.

Acknowledging the political challenge of getting Congress to agree to spending cuts of any kind - particularly in an election year - Mr. Orszag cited the administration’s success in achieving most of its proposed cuts last year. For example, he noted, Congress agreed to eliminate the F-22 fighter jet, a program that had eluded previous administrations.

“We are going to fight for the things that we put forward because we believe we need additional job creation now and significant deficit reduction in the out years,” he said.

Robert Greenstein, executive director of the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, said Mr. Obama couldn’t have gone with deeper cuts or tax increases.

“Had the president proposed major additional budget cuts and revenue increases, not only would Congress almost certainly have rejected them, but the inevitable harsh attacks on them could have ‘poisoned the well’ and made them even harder to achieve in the future if and when a more bipartisan atmosphere makes greater budgetary progress possible,” Mr. Greenstein said.

Although Mr. Obama’s budget projects a deficit of $752 billion in 2015, the White House is counting on a proposed fiscal commission to find a way to balance the budget - excluding debt interest payments - by that time. That means shaving nearly 1 percent of their projected deficit, which amounts to 3.9 percent of the economy, to 3 percent, Mr. Orszag said.

Just one week after the Senate killed a legislative version of the bipartisan commission, officials wouldn’t speculate as to how the yet-to-be-created panel - whose recommendations would be nonbinding - would accomplish the feat. Mr. Orszag said the White House has made clear its preference not to raise taxes on middle-income earners.

“We do face a substantial medium-term deficit problem and what we have said is we put forward proposals to get us part of the way there. The commission will have to get us the rest of the way there,” he said. “We have been very clear about our stance on taxes and frankly on other spending proposals also. The commission hasn’t even been yet named. Let’s let it do its work.”

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About the Author
Kara Rowland

Kara Rowland

Kara Rowland, White House reporter for The Washington Times, is a D.C.-area native. She graduated from the University of Virginia, where she studied American government and spent nearly all her waking hours working as managing editor of the Cavalier Daily, UVa.’s student newspaper.

Her interest in political reporting was piqued by an internship at Roll Call the summer before her ...

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