By Peter Roff, Thomas Jefferson Street blog
Having surfed across his first 100 days on a flood of new spending, President Barack Obama is now trying to tack back toward the center. Or at least he is trying to look like he is trying to.
Near the end of April the president asked his cabinet to find $100 million in cuts they could make out of current operations in their departments and to report back to him in 90 days. But, as the Republicans were quick to point out, that's not a serious proposal. $100 million amounts to just 0.0025% of total federal spending for fiscal year 2009. Or, to put it another way, that's what the federal government spends about every 13 minutes.
Now Obama wants Congress to approve $17 billion in cuts from 121 federal programs out of a budget that tops out at nearly $3.5 trillion dollars—cuts that are heavily tilting toward spending at the Pentagon. But, at just under $20 billion, expecting these cuts to help halve the federal deficit by the end of his first term, as he has promised to do, is sort of like believing you could patch the holes in the Titanic with a trash bag and a tube of Krazy Glue.
Not surprisingly, Congressional Democrats are balking.
As the Washington Post reported Friday, "President Obama's modest proposal to slice $17 billion from 121 government programs quickly ran into a buzz saw of opposition on Capitol Hill yesterday, as an array of Democratic lawmakers vowed to fight White House efforts to deprive their favorite initiatives of federal funds."
Our worst fears are confirmed. After billions in new spending, a $3.4 trillion budget and various bailout efforts that have seen cash and taxpayer-backed obligations pushed out the door like paratroopers in training, Congress feels it is under no pressure to rein in its pork-barreling ways.
According to the Post, Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., said she is "committed" to keeping a $400 million program that reimburses states for jailing illegal immigrants, a task she called 'a total federal responsibility.'" Rep. Mike Ross, D-Ark., "said he would oppose 'any cuts' in agriculture subsidies because 'farmers and farm families depend on this federal assistance.'" And Rep. Maurice D. Hinchey, D-N.Y., "vowed to force the White House to accept delivery of a new presidential helicopter Obama says he doesn't need and doesn't want. The helicopter program, which cost $835 million this year, supports 800 jobs in Hinchey's district."
But the cool reception these proposed cuts are getting on Capitol Hill don't just indicate the pork barrels will keep rolling; they also indicate that the rift between Obama and members of his own party, which admittedly may at the moment be small, are nevertheless going to widen.
As various polls have shown, and as I have written previously on Thomas Jefferson Street, Obama is considerably more popular that his agenda for America. The gap between the two has widened over the last two months. The Democrats in Congress, many of whom have to run for re-election in about 18 months, have apparently taken note of this. And, by their reaction to such administration initiatives one would think popular, like making specific cuts in spending, especially at the Pentagon, and the closure of the detention facility at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, they expect to be taking some heat for the White House's actions in November 2010. Otherwise why not embrace everything and anything Obama wants to do?
The answer is that, as the Republicans found out in 1982 and 1986, a president with high approval ratings is not a guarantee that his party will continue, or even achieve electoral success in the off-year. So the Democrats on Capitol Hill have apparently decided, now that the first 100 days are over, to start playing it smart by making sure they can tell the voters back home there is, in fact, some daylight between them and the president.
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