President Obama notched substantial successes in spending cuts last year, winning 60 percent of his proposed cuts and managing to get Congress to ax several programs that had bedeviled President George W. Bush for years.
The administration says Congress accepted at least $6.9 billion of the $11.3 billion in discretionary spending cuts Mr. Obama proposed for the current fiscal year. An analysis by The Washington Times found that Mr. Obama was victorious in getting Congress to slash 24 programs and achieved some level of success in reducing nine other programs.
Among the president’s victories are canceling the multibillion-dollar F-22 Raptor program, ending the LORAN-C radio-based ship navigation system and culling a series of low-dollar education grants. In each of those cases, Mr. Obama succeeded in eliminating programs that Mr. Bush repeatedly failed to end.
“This is a very strong beginning for the president’s efforts to shape a budget that invests in programs that work and that ends programs that don’t,” said Tom Gavin, a spokesman for the White House budget office. “The Congress has approved more than 60 percent of the president’s proposals, and that’s a high mark, that’s a strong beginning.”
Mr. Obama’s cuts shine a bright spot in an otherwise dreary budget picture. The Congressional Budget Office said the deficit for fiscal 2010, which began Oct. 1, is building at a record pace, reaching $389 billion for those first three months.
Even though the president succeeded in winning a high percentage of his cuts, they still account for well less than one-half of 1 percent of the total federal budget.
Eliminating programs is tough, and proposed cuts barely get through Congress in some years.
Marc Goldwein, policy director at the Committee for a Responsible Budget, said President George H.W. Bush in 1992 proposed eliminating 246 small programs, but succeeded in getting only eight of them chopped. One of those successes was to end funds for the Constitutional Bicentennial Commission - an event that was completed five years earlier.
Mr. Goldwein said the nature of the appropriations process means every program that gets federal money has a powerful backer somewhere.
One option is to outlast those supporters.
For years, Sen. Ted Stevens, Alaska Republican and a senior member of the Appropriations Committee, was able to fight off efforts to cut the Coast Guard’s LORAN-C navigation system, arguing that it was needed as a backup to the Global Positioning System. But Mr. Stevens lost his bid for re-election in 2008, leaving the pro-LORAN-C forces depleted. In the appropriations bill, Congress included some funding but allowed the Coast Guard to terminate the program - a decision the administration announced last week.
Mr. Obama made progress on several other programs that had eluded Mr. Bush’s ax, including a student mentoring program in the Education Department, which went from $47 million in 2009 to zero, and Labor Department work incentive grants, which went from $17 million to zero.
Budget analysts said Mr. Obama made a smart decision last year by targeting the Defense Department for some of the biggest cuts, such as the F-22, which received $2.9 billion last year, and the Future Combat Systems manned ground vehicle, which was cut by $1.4 billion.
Steve Ellis, a spokesman for Taxpayers for Common Sense, said he was reminded of 1930s robber Willie Sutton’s reply when asked why he robbed banks: “Because that’s where the money is.”
Brian M. Riedl, the Heritage Foundation’s chief budget analyst, said Mr. Obama knew his audience when he went after defense items.
“The president wisely proposed most of his cuts in defense, knowing that the Democratic Congress is going to give much more scrutiny to defense than nondefense programs, so it’s not surprising he had some success there. He was sailing with the wind,” Mr. Riedl said.
Mr. Bush’s list of proposed cuts for fiscal 2009 didn’t include any for the Defense Department, and the word “defense” didn’t appear once in the 194-page volume Mr. Bush released detailing waste and inefficiency.
Mr. Obama had the benefit of working with a Congress controlled by Democrats. Mr. Bush, in his most successful budget, for fiscal 2006, was working with fellow Republicans when he won 40 percent of his cuts, for roughly $6.5 billion. But he was working with that same Republican Congress the next year, when he won just $2 billion, or 15 percent of his proposed cuts.
Mr. Obama’s victories were offset by some defeats, including several programs to which Congress added money.
The president had asked Congress to stop inserting earmarks telling the Environmental Protection Agency where to build water infrastructure projects, which in 2009 totaled $145 million. Congress instead boosted the total to $157 million this year, according to the EPA.
Mr. Obama asked Congress to slash $26 million in funding for the Delta Health Initiative, arguing that the government ends up paying for equipment or facilities that should be financed by customers of private health clinics.
Instead, Sen. Thad Cochran, Mississippi Republican and ranking member of the Appropriations Committee, inserted an earmark that keeps the money flowing and raises the level an additional $9 million. Mr. Cochran said in his budget request that the money will help taxpayers by improving health services in one of the nation’s most impoverished regions.
Mr. Obama’s worst spending defeats, like his victories, came in defense programs.
The president had urged Congress to end funding for an alternate engine for the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter, but Congress added $465 million to keep the program operating. Congress also added $2.5 billion to buy more C-17 cargo planes, which the Pentagon says are not needed.
Some of those programs could be on the chopping block again next month, when Mr. Obama is expected to submit his fiscal 2011 budget.