How Zombie Programs Manage to Avoid Budget Cuts

Congress must take President Obama's recommendations for cutting programs seriously.

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President Barack Obama talks with senior advisors in the Oval Office, Feb. 11, 2013. Pictured, from left, are: Chief of Staff Denis McDonough; Alyssa Mastromonaco, Deputy Chief of Staff for Operations; and Rob Nabors, Deputy White House Chief of Staff for Policy.
President Barack Obama talks with senior advisors in the Oval Office, Feb. 11, 2013. Pictured, from left, are: Chief of Staff Denis McDonough; Alyssa Mastromonaco, Deputy Chief of Staff for Operations; and Rob Nabors, Deputy White House Chief of Staff for Policy.

Ryan Alexander is the president of Taxpayers for Common Sense.

Every year, part of the president's budget request to Congress includes a detailed catalog of programs targeted for the chopping block. It's taken on different names in different administrations, most recently going from Major Savings and Reforms to Terminations, Reductions, and Savings; last year took on its most recent iteration Cuts, Consolidations, and Savings. Whatever you call it, this is a document that we at Taxpayers for Common Sense eagerly await, as if it were the miraculously discovered manuscripts of Stieg Larsson's Millenium series.

The contents of the report are exciting, after all. Page after page of tables and charts that list programs that don't work, are duplicative, are generally too low a priority given other competing needs, or for whatever reason, just don't need federal money. Who wouldn't be excited about reading lists and charts of axe-ready programs, a roadmap to fiscal responsibility?

[See a collection of political cartoons on the budget and deficit.]

But alas, the suspense over what is contained this report is undone by what Congress actually does with it. Over the years, this important list has unfortunately become just another part of the budget kabuki dance in Washington.

The good news is that the report lays out, in specific terms, programs the sitting administration thinks can be trimmed or completely eliminated. The bad news is that year after year, most of the proposed programs in the report are ignored, scaled back only slightly, or worse yet, actually given a budget increase.

Ironically, the fate of the items in this list are less subject to partisan politics than you might think. While no one would describe the George W. Bush administration and President Obama's administration as seeing eye to eye on the budget, their lists had lots of overlap.

Take, for example, the Harry S. Truman Scholarship Program, a highly regarded scholarship program that has a large endowment and is capable of operating without federal support. No president, Democrat or Republican, has proposed funding this program since 1978. And yet, Congress continues to appropriate about $1 million a year to it.

Or job training earmarks for the Alaska's Denali Commission. Repeatedly, Alaska's delegation somehow manages to carve out additional funding for this, on top of what they already receive through established formulas.

Other examples are equally baffling: the High Energy Costs Grant Program provided by the United States Department of Agriculture is included on the list because it is duplicative of the Rural Utilities Service Hardship Electric Loan Program, and yet it continues to be funded by Congress, even in a time of sequestration. Or various commodity payments to agricultural businesses: Direct Payments, crop insurance subsidies, marketing assistance, research grants – all are routinely targeted for trimming or elimination by presidents from both parties, yet continue to be funded, even as agribusiness is experiencing some of its best years in generations.

[See a collection of political cartoons on Congress.]

Sometimes, repeated targeting by the terminations, reductions, and savings list does eventually lead to savings. Take the example of the Expeditionary Fighting Vehicle, a lemon of a military vehicle targeted for termination in the budget proposals for fiscal years 2006, 2011, and 2012, until it was finally put out of its misery. Or the alternate engine for the Joint Strike Fighter, a $450-plus million earmark the Pentagon didn't want. Targeted by both the Obama and Bush administrations as a way to save tax dollars, this redundant program was finally eliminated in 2012.

But overall, Congress tends to ignore the requests for savings coming from the president, even if they're in the same party. Will this year – in the wake of sequestration, the fiscal cliff, and the debt ceiling battles – be the year the president's recommendations for saving taxpayers money are taken seriously? Or, like most years, will the vast majority of items on this list of cuts go overlooked and wait to reappear on next year's list?

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