Dozens of newly elected Republicans and Tea Party activists are headed to Washington eager to fulfill their campaign promises to cut federal spending and prove President Ronald Reagan wrong when he said that “the nearest thing to eternal life we’ll ever see on the earth is a government program.”
But don’t count on it, say budget watchdogs who know that even frequently targeted federal programs rarely die. “Even the dumbest federal program already has a built-in power structure that makes it almost impossible to eliminate,” said Brian Riedl, research fellow for federal budget policy at the conservative Heritage Foundation.
Former White House chief of staff Erskine Bowles and former Sen. Alan Simpson, R-Wyo., proposed more than 50 specific program cuts valued at $200 billion over the next four years in their roles as co-chairmen of the president’s fiscal commission; among them merging the Commerce Department and Small Business Administration.
In their final report issued last Friday, Bowles and Simpson also called for abolishing the Economic Development Administration and eliminating the Office of Safe and Drug Free Schools, the Overseas Private Investment Corporation and most programs of the Rural Utility Service.
Besides combining Commerce and the SBA, Bowles and Simpson proposed to reduce their total funding by 10 percent, or approximately $1 billion, by fiscal 2015. They did not specify how many jobs might be lost by such a cut, although the Commerce Department has approximately 38,000 full-time-equivalent employees.
President Obama’s fiscal 2011 budget already presumes about a $5 billion reduction in the Commerce Department’s funding, because more than 90,000 temporary jobs created to carry out the 2010 census have now ended. Eliminating OPIC, which has been a goal of previous administrations over the past three decades, would save less than $100 million and put at risk 225 employees. But federal employees whose jobs are eliminated can get preference when applying for positions in other agencies.
A History of Failed Cuts
But government-slashing recommendations like these follow a long line of similar attempts that proved unsuccessful. Over the years, repeated efforts have been made to eliminate the Energy and Education departments, as well as smaller agencies like the Appalachian Regional Commission (also on the Bowles-Simpson list for termination) and the Rural Electrification Administration (REA), whose original mission was achieved decades ago. All failed.
Within weeks of taking office in 1981, Reagan began the assault on the Appalachian Regional Commission, created in 1965 as a Great Society program, and the REA, begun during the New Deal.
The ARC is a partnership between the federal government and the governors of 13 states, established to supplement state and local government efforts to enhance economic development in the Appalachian region. The REA was founded to bring electricity to rural areas like the Tennessee Valley, and over the decades has created hundreds of rural electric coops. Critics have said that both programs have outlived their usefulness. But Congress has renewed these programs every year, often adding funds for their operations.
In fiscal 1982, Reagan proposed terminating ARC outright, but Congress approved $153 million for it, with most of the money provided to build a 3,090-mile system of highways throughout Appalachia that remains its major project. The following year, the Republican president recommended abolishing only the commission’s nonhighway programs, while proposing $80 million for road construction. Congress appropriated nearly $148 million.
That spending authority included $9.4 million in vaguely worded appropriations to complete parts of highways in Mississippi and Alabama. The money was inserted by House Energy and Water Appropriations Subcommittee Chairman Tom Bevill, D-Ala., and supported by the legendary House Appropriations Committee Chairman Jamie Whitten, D-Miss. In later years, Sen. Robert Byrd, D-W.Va., routinely added money to complete the highway system.
Last year, Congress approved $76 million in operating funds for the ARC, according to a federal budget document, while road construction was folded into the federal aid highway program.
Reagan also targeted the REA on the grounds that its mission to bring electricity to all of rural America had been completed in the 1960s. But Congress ignored the proposal, with even the late conservative Sen. Jesse Helms, R-N.C., who chaired the Senate Agriculture Committee, bucking the president.
In 1994, the REA was abolished, but its programs were transferred to the Rural Utilities Service, which received $36 million of grant authority last year.
Even the much smaller programs that presidents seek to abolish in every annual budget nearly always survive. When President George W. Bush targeted 92 programs in his fiscal year 2008 budget, 47 had been proposed for extinction in at least the three previous years.
A Defender for Every Program
“You see the same ones [being targeted for elimination] year after year,” said David Williams, vice president of policy for Citizens against Government Waste. “Every program has a political supporter who will take a bullet for it.”
Riedl said he could think of only one program that was eliminated in the past decade – and that was a mere $400 million program aimed at eliminating drugs in public housing projects. Even programs that presidents claim to kill happily survive in another form – consolidated with other programs. “That doesn’t really count as a termination. It wasn’t really eliminated,” said Riedl.
“The number of significant federal programs that has been eliminated has been virtually zero,” he said. “The simple fact is that every dollar of government spending, no matter how wasteful, will be defended to the last breath by those receiving it.”
Bob Livingston, a lobbyist and former Republican House member who chaired the Appropriations Committee from 1995 to 1998, cited the annual battle to increase funding for the Low Income Home Energy Assistance Program, which provides needy constituents with heating and cooling aid, as an example of inviolate spending.
For some Northeastern members of Congress, the program never could get enough money, he told The Fiscal Times. “It just became a total boondoggle. But you had key members there who championed it,” said Livingston, who considered the program unnecessary and wasteful. Williams, of Citizens against Government Waste, said he still hopes the new Congress that takes office in January will be different.
New Congress, New Possibilities
First of all, he said, the tide has turned against the practice of individual lawmakers getting special spending or earmarks for their districts or for special interests. “It used to be cool to vote for earmarks. Now it’s cool to vote against them,” he said.
Second, Williams said, the increased use of social media like Facebook and Twitter will enable conservatives to rally support quickly for terminating programs before they are brought to a vote. “Today, when there’s a vote ... we were not only watching it on TV but on our computers,” he said. “If we have any sort of advantage [now more] than we did 16 years ago, it is that: the flow of information.”
Third, these new Republicans can learn from the mistakes made by the previous GOP majority of the mid-1990s, according to Livingston. “We were the first Republican majority in 40 years,” he said. “We had a lot of victories; we made a lot of mistakes. These guys have the luxury of having seen it done before.”
Yet Williams said he’s not convinced Republicans will have a better track record of eliminating programs this time around. “Is it going to happen? Probably not. Getting rid of a program is so much more difficult than getting rid of an earmark,” he said. “Everybody can find something good in a program.”