This is a great survivor in the vast ecosystem of federal funding: a 20-year-old program that gives cash prizes for work in science. President Obama has called it inefficient and redundant. He and House Republicans — who agree on almost nothing — have tried to eliminate it.
Each time, however, it has been saved by a powerful friend in the Senate, Thad Cochran, the senior senator from Mississippi.
Now, Washington is enmeshed in another battle over spending. But the Columbus foundation shows how both parties are struggling to turn their hard-nosed rhetoric about austerity into action. After all, it would be hard to imagine a less painful cut than this one: a program with two full-time employees and bipartisan enemies.
And yet, it lives.
“Cutting . . . is actually a lot harder than people think,” said Rep. Jo Ann Emerson (R-Mo.), who made her own failed effort to kill the program last year.
In all, there have been seven explicit efforts to ax this program since Obama took office. The president has made four of them, asking for its demise in all of his official budgets.
Three Republicans have introduced legislation to end it. Besides Emerson, Sen. Tom Coburn (Okla.) filed a bill to enact Obama’s suggestion in 2011. And last year, the foundation was targeted by a program run by House GOP leaders: YouCut, in which online voters choose among possible spending reductions.
One week, voters picked the Columbus foundation.
“We have a serious budget deficit,” Rep. Paul A. Gosar (R-Ariz.) said in a Web video. He’d been assigned by the GOP to shepherd a bill to cut the foundation. “Spending on nice-sounding but unnecessary programs represents the low-hanging fruit of spending.”
All three bills failed.
Emerson’s and Coburn’s efforts sputtered out. Gosar’s measure died in committee, part of a broader fizzle for the YouCut program. Of the 36 cuts its voters chose, only eight got a vote in the full House, and just two became law in some form. The GOP, distracted by the debt ceiling, health care and other fights, missed its chance to compile a House-approved wish list of cuts-in-waiting.
An aide to Gosar said the congressman was not available for comment. He said Gosar does not plan on reintroducing the bill in this Congress.
All along, as Obama and these Republicans were making a show of trying to cut the foundation, another Republican, Cochran, was doing the quiet work necessary to keep it going.
On the Hill, aides said Cochran has repeatedly requested funding from Sen. Richard J. Durbin (D-Ill.), who oversees appropriations for small government agencies.
Year after year, Durbin has agreed, and the full Senate has voted in favor.
When the Senate and the House have met to resolve differences in spending bills, House negotiators have given in on the foundation’s money. “If you’re in a major negotiation,” one Republican staffer explained, “that’s a bone that’s small enough to throw the Senate so you can get something back.”