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.”