How a few efforts to cut federal government spending succeeded — or failed

December 27, 2013
Airport attracts few planes, but plenty of U.S. cash

In Oklahoma, the state-owned Lake Murray State Park Airport is visited by just one plane per week. Or less. But the state kept the airfield open anyway, to serve as an ATM for federal cash. Every year, thanks to a handout program designed by Congress, this little-used field entitles the state to $150,000 in aid money.

Situation changed? Pending.

In March, after The Washington Post ran a story about the airport, the Oklahoma Aeronautics Commission reversed course and voted to close it. But the airport remains open. Oklahoma officials blame the Federal Aviation Administration for holding up the paperwork required to close the airport. The FAA says the delay is Oklahoma’s fault.

Camouflage uniforms become a case study in duplication

In 2002, the U.S. military had just two types of camouflage uniforms: a green one for the woods and a brown one for the desert. Then, individual services began developing their own patterns and often refused to share them. As a result, there are now 11 types of camouflage. Those duplicative efforts produced high costs and uneven results. The Air Force created a “battle uniform” that airmen in Afghanistan were prohibited from wearing in battle. The Navy designed a blue camouflage that worked only if sailors fell overboard.

Situation changed? Pending.

Recently, the House and Senate passed a bill that would require branches of the armed services that want a new pattern to choose one already in use by another service or adopt one that would be used by all services.

The program that Obama and the House GOP can’t kill

President Obama and House Republicans have tried to eliminate the Christopher Columbus Fellowship Foundation, a tiny and largely duplicative federal program that runs a contest for middle schoolers interested in science. Each time, the program has escaped the ax thanks to a single powerful patron, Sen. Thad Cochran (R-Miss.).

Situation changed? No.

Even as other parts of government have been cut, this program has survived. Under the current spending bill, it is allotted $450,000 per year (although sequestration took some of those funds). Next year, Congress will write spending bills based on the new bipartisan budget agreement, and both Obama and House Republicans have asked again to kill it.

A new wrinkle in the battle over a national raisin reserve

In California, a 64-year-old program empowers the government to create a national raisin reserve — a pool of raisins seized to control the supply on the open market. The farmers whose raisins are taken are often never paid a cent. When one refused to turn over his raisins, the government threatened him with huge fines.

Situation changed? Pending.

Neither the Agriculture Department nor Congress has acted to eliminate the Raisin Administrative Committee, the government entity that seizes the raisins. But the panel faces an uncertain future in the federal courts. This year, the Supreme Court sided with the rebel raisin farmer, sending his challenge back to the Court of Appeals for the 9th Circuit, which will hear oral arguments in February.

Sometimes when people die, their benefit payments live on

The federal government has sent hundreds of millions of dollars in benefits to the deceased, thanks to a glitchy and outdated system that is supposed to track America’s deaths. One problem is that death reports don’t reach benefit-paying agencies, which continue sending the money. Another problem: The same troubled system mistakenly counts some living people — at least 750 a month — as officially dead.

Situation changed? No.

Sens. Thomas R. Carper (D-Del.) and Tom Coburn (R-Okla.) have submitted a bill intended to improve this system and to ensure that more benefit-paying agencies check to be sure their beneficiaries are still alive. The bill passed a Senate committee this month.

The federal helium program: Put to rest, it rises again

Back in the age of zeppelin warfare, the U.S. government was worried that its military blimps would run short of helium. So Congress created a national helium stockpile, storing the gas in rock formations beneath the Texas panhandle. Then in 1996 — during another period of budget cuts — Congress voted to get out of the helium business. In 2013, the helium stockpile program was supposed to end.

Situation changed? Yes.

The program didn’t die after all. This fall, after experts warned that the private sector was not ready to replace the U.S. government as a source of helium, Congress voted to keep the helium program going.

Farm subsidies are going to Manhattan high-rises

An odd farm-subsidy program hands out $5 billion a year, under oddly relaxed rules. To get the benefits, it’s not necessary to farm any crops. Or live on a farm. Or even visit. All that’s required is to own a plot of farmland designated for “direct payments,” a kind of subsidy that was supposed to die out in 2003. Some payments go to New York high-rises and Georgetown townhouses.

Situation changed? Pending.

The Senate and the House have approved versions of the farm bill that would end these payments. But the two chambers are still fighting over other parts of the bill, which has held up final passage.

The government has 15 ways to define the word ‘rural’

The U.S. government has 15 official definitions of the word “rural,” including 11 used within the Department of Agriculture alone. The definitions, created by laws that accumulated over years, vary widely. Some include cities of 49,000 people, while others include only places with fewer than 2,500. The result is confusion for small towns seeking federal aid designated for rural places.

Situation changed? Pending.

The Senate version of this year’s farm bill would pare the list down to nine definitions of “rural.” The House version, however, would leave the 15 definitions in place. The two chambers are now working out a compromise version of the farm bill, so it’s unclear whether the law will change.

A plane that costs $6,600 a month but doesn’t fly

The federal government pays $6,600 a month for an airplane that doesn’t fly. “Aero Martí” was previously flown to broadcast a U.S. TV channel to communist-led Cuba. But the Cuban government jammed the signal and almost no one watched it. The U.S. government has grounded the plane but is still paying to keep it in storage in Georgia.

Situation changed? No.

The plane is still not flying and still costing money. The agency that pays for it, the Broadcasting Board of Governors, is hesitant to get rid of it entirely, worried that Congress could demand that the plane start flying again. The TV channel it once broadcast, TV Martí, is trying to reach Cuban audiences in other ways, including DVDs shipped to the island and passed hand to hand.

$562,000 for VA artwork in ‘use it or lose it’ season

In late September, federal agencies went on an unusual spending blitz. The Department of Veterans Affairs spent $562,000 on artwork. The Agriculture Department spent $144,000 on toner cartridges. The reason? Under rules set by Congress, their allotted money for fiscal 2013 would disappear at midnight Sept. 30. Watchdogs say this annual deadline leads to rushed, and often wasteful, spending of taxpayer money.

Situation changed? No.

The “use it or lose it” system is still in place, meaning that the same kind of spending spree is likely to happen in the fall of 2014.

A popular program to build better sheep shearers

The National Sheep Industry Improvement Center provides grants to the sheep and goat industry, paying for contests that reward young shearers and for trips for industry executives. It has strong support from legislators from sheep-heavy states such as Texas and Montana. This year, it was on schedule to be renewed at a cost of $1 million or more.

Situation changed? Pending.

This summer, Rep. Trey Radel (R-Fla.) led a surprise effort to kill the program in the House, which succeeded after a nail-biting vote. But the Senate’s version of the farm bill leaves the program untouched. The two houses are working out a compromise version of the bill. But Radel is not around to fight for his cause — he took a leave of absence after pleading guilty to cocaine possession in November.

A federal ‘disaster plan’ for a magician’s rabbit

In Missouri, a children’s magician with one rabbit got an order from the U.S. Department of Agriculture: He needed to write a “disaster plan” for the bunny. That odd order was the result of a decades-old law originally meant to regulate zoos and circuses. But bureaucrats had slowly expanded its reach so that USDA inspectors were cracking down on one-bunny magicians.

Situation changed? Yes.

Hours after a Washington Post story about this case appeared online, the USDA announced that it had suspended the disaster-plan rule. The rule is now formally “stayed,” the department says, “until the best course of action is determined and will apply to all regulated entities.”

David A. Fahrenthold covers Congress for the Washington Post. He has been at the Post since 2000, and previously covered (in order) the D.C. police, New England, and the environment.
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