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Cut and dried

"Cut and dried" Continued...

Issue: "Moneymaker," March 23, 2013

The cuts, moreover, are to the growth of government, not to real spending. The federal government’s budget will be larger this year compared to last year. Federal spending is predicted to grow by 67 percent over the next decade even with sequestration (without sequestration it would grow 69 percent to $6 trillion by 2023). The reason: Sequestration leaves untouched the real drivers of spending—entitlements.

Even with the cuts, the government will have $60 billion more in discretionary money to play with than it did in 2008, the year before Obama took office. The education program Head Start is just one of the many programs that has exploded under Obama, going from a budget of $6.87 billion in 2008 to $7.97 billion in 2012. The program faces $422 million in sequester cuts, giving the program a budget of $7.55 billion. That’s above Head Start’s 2008 budget.

Sen. Tom Coburn, R-Okla., insists, “There are easy ways to cut this money that the American people will never feel.” Coburn sent a Feb. 26 letter to the White House highlighting more than 1,362 duplicative programs identified by the Government Accountability Office that costs taxpayers at least $364.5 billion annually. They include 80 economic development programs at four agencies, 160 housing programs, and 250 programs at the Department of Justice that offer similar grants.

Last year, when the Department of Homeland Security discovered $8.3 billion in unspent grant funds, it issued new guidelines to expedite the process “in light of the current economic situation.” In other words, department officials wanted to spend it so they wouldn’t lose it in future budgets. The department says that $5.25 billion of those funds remain unspent. But that is not something Janet Napolitano, the DHS secretary, brought up when she decried the $2.6 billion in cuts facing the department through sequestration.

And no one in the government has targeted the roughly 77,000 unused, underused, and sometimes dilapidated federal buildings that the Congressional Research Service reported last year as costing $1.67 billion a year to maintain.

Coburn also wrote to the Pentagon to target such programs as: the Board of Geographic Names, the Grill It Safe video series that highlights “grill sergeants” showing off their own recipes, the $1 million program planning to send a spaceship to another solar system, and the $5.2 million used on a project to determine what lessons about democracy could be learned from fish.

Armed with these examples of federal waste, Senate Republicans introduced a bill to give the White House more flexibility in managing the $85 billion in cuts. It failed, with Obama threatening to veto the bill.

The fiscal battle now moves to the next deadline: The government’s current funding levels run out on March 27. But a longer fight will occur over the future of the sequester: A decade’s worth of cuts totaling $960 billion are left.

Republicans are banking that the current cuts will show that shrinking the government won’t hinder private growth, while Democrats are hoping that removing a slice of money from the federal coffers will lead to a calamity that allows government to come to the rescue. Whether the public screams or yawns will go a long way to determining the outcome of the 2014 elections. Obama will look to those elections to cement his legacy by taking over the House while Republicans will look to stop him by controlling the Senate.

Until then, if the economy remains sluggish, Obama has already begun to use sequestration as an excuse in the same way he used former President George W. Bush as the fall guy during the last four years.

“Every time we get a piece of economic news, we’ll know that news could have been better if not for Congress’ failure to act,” Obama said March 1 after blaming Republicans for the cuts that he called “dumb” and “arbitrary.”

Sensing that the public had not fallen into hysteria over the cuts, Obama did concede that not everyone will feel the pain right away. But he could not resist one more attempt with the Washington Monument Syndrome. He warned that the “folks who are cleaning the floors at the Capitol” will make less money due to the cuts. “The janitors, the security guards, they just got a pay cut, and they’ve got to figure out how to manage that,” he said.

Soon after Obama spoke, Carlos Elias, the superintendent of the U.S. Capitol building, emailed his employees: “The pay and benefits of EACH of our employees WILL NOT be impacted … I request that you please notify all of our employees about the importance of ignoring media reports.”

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