Even in an era of budget cuts, these government programs won’t die

The programs sound innocuous enough: One spends federal money to store cotton bales. Another offers scholars a chance to study Asian-American relations. Two others pay to market U.S. oranges in Asia and clean up abandoned coal mines.

But in Washington’s wonkier circles, these are the federal budget’s equivalent of Jason Voorhees, the hockey-masked movie villain who could take an ax in the skull and come back for the sequel.

They are the Line Items That Won’t Die.

In recent years, leaders in both parties — including, in some cases, presidents from both parties — have singled out these four programs, worth a total of about $337 million, to either be eliminated or lose millions in funding. But they have survived, again and again, thanks to powerful lobbies or high-placed patrons in Congress. Even this year, after Congress cut $38 billion from the budget, they live on.

Now, in the lull before the next budget battle, watchdog groups say these often-criticized programs show the difficulty of the task ahead.

“This is why Ronald Reagan said that a government program is the closest thing to eternal life that we’ve ever seen on Earth,” said Brian Riedl of the conservative Heritage Foundation. “If lawmakers can’t cut programs that cost a few million, how are they going to cut deficits that are going to be in the trillions?”

Among the survivors this year was the East-West Center, a Hono­lulu nonprofit that has long been one of the budget’s great immortals.

The center runs exchange programs for U.S. and Asian journalists and young professionals, conducts research and offers scholarships to study at the University of Hawaii. For 2010, President Obama’s budget proposed reducing its federal funding from $21 million to $12 million, arguing that this would encourage the center to seek other sources for money.

That went nowhere.

The center has a powerful ally in Congress: Sen. Daniel K. Inouye (D-Hawaii), the chairman of the Senate Appropriations Committee. Instead of shrinking by millions, the center’s subsidy went up by $2 million.

This year, the Republican-controlled House tried again. In February, it voted to strip $10.7 million, half the center’s budget.

Once again, the center mainly escaped the ax. After the House and Senate worked out a final deal, its budget had fallen by about $2 million — basically losing the money it had picked up a year earlier.

The center now also has a direct tie to Obama, whose half-sister, Maya Soetero-Ng, was hired about a year ago to work as a part-time educator. Her work is paid for by private funds.

An administration official said the White House has not pushed for the center’s budget to be cut this year, saying it is focused on disputes over bigger-ticket items. The White House said Soetero-Ng’s connection had nothing to do with this.

A spokesman for Inouye said only that the senator “has been a strong supporter of the East-West Center since its inception.”

“This is the year we thought it would change. It’s the same-old, same-old in the Senate, financial crisis or not,” said Rep. Edward R. Royce (R-Calif.), who supported the amendment to reduce the center’s funding. “For every dollar we spend on this talk-shop, we borrow another 42 cents.”

Buy American, overseas

At the Agriculture Department, the budget deal spared another untouchable: the Market Access Program.

The program costs about $200 million a year and pays to promote U.S. agricultural products in foreign markets. That could mean holding something as simple as a taste test in the aisles of Asian supermarkets, pitting California pistachios against Iranian ones.

In past years, this was one of the rare things that united Obama and the ultra-conservative Republican Study Committee.

The program’s “economic impact is unclear,” Obama’s 2011 budget said. It recommended a 20 percent cut.

“Taxpayers should not be forced to pick up the tab for this kind of corporate welfare,” said the GOP committee, whose members include 175 of 241 House Republicans. It recommended eliminating the whole thing.

But the program has powerful supporters: the U.S. farm lobby.

“It’s the government’s responsibility to help us counter the heavy subsidization enjoyed by our competitors,” said Michael Wootton, a senior vice president at Sunkist Growers and chairman of a coalition that has lobbied to keep the Market Access Program.

Sunkist, a nonprofit group of citrus growers that took in $1 billion in gross sales in fiscal 2010, got $4 million from the government through the program. Wootton said that advertising helps offset the benefits that foreign growers get from government subsidies and tariffs. “With that brand, and that identity, we’re able to effectively overcome the price differential” with cheaper foreign-produced products, Wootton said.

This year, Rep. Scott Garrett (R-N.J.) proposed a budget amendment that would have cut off the money for the program’s staff.

It never came up for a vote.

Quietly surviving

Other often-criticized programs have also survived without much debate. One of them, intended to clean up abandoned coal mines, sends millions every year to states that are finished cleaning up their highest-priority sites.

The Republican Study Committee has called for cutting this program. So did the bipartisan debt commission. So did Obama, starting in 2009.

“We cut $115 million from a program that pays states to clean up mines that have already been cleaned up,” Obama said the next year, as he laid out the reductions he planned in his budget.

It didn’t happen then. And it didn’t happen this year. The program, which state governments say they still need, was not altered by Congress.

Also unchanged: a program that pays cotton and peanut farmers to store their bales and bushels in warehouses. The idea is to let farmers keep their crop off the market while prices are low. The federal government will still budget $2 million a year, despite criticism from Obama and before him George W. Bush.

Not all of the budget’s immortals escaped serious cuts this year.

Congress eliminated $42 million for the Robert C. Byrd Honors Scholarship Program, named for the longtime senator from West Virginia. It cut $10 million from the National Drug Intelligence Center, a facility in Johnstown, Pa., promoted by House titan John P. Murtha (D-Pa.). And it took more than half the federal funds from the Denali Commission, an agency created by long-serving senator Ted Stevens (R-Alaska).

All three programs share one trait. Their champions in Congress — Byrd, Murtha and Stevens — all recently died.

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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