President Bush announces a $2.5 trillion budget for fiscal 2006 tomorrow that takes a hard line with domestic spending, slashing or eliminating more than 150 federal programs. But the administration's record last year does not promise much success.
A year ago the White House targeted 65 programs to save nearly $5 billion. But Congress agreed to ax only five of them -- and restored a previously eliminated a trade-relations program with historic whaling partners, and the saving shrank to $292 million.
"As Ronald Reagan once said, a federal program is the closest thing to eternal life you will ever see," said Brian M. Riedl, a federal budget analyst at the conservative Heritage Foundation.
Bush enters the budget season projecting a record deficit for this fiscal year of $427 billion and facing mounting pressure, both from within his party and global financiers, to get serious about the red ink. At the same time, he must wage wars in Afghanistan and Iraq that show no clear sign of ending while he pursues a centerpiece Social Security program that would cost the government $754 billion in its first five years, and considerably more after that.
Bush also has his own, preferred programs to fund in his 2006 budget request -- a new $1.5 billion high school performance initiative, expanded Pell Grants for low-income college students, job-training efforts and additional community health clinics.
With so much off limits, the president has turned to the 18 percent of the federal budget that remains, vowing to virtually freeze domestic, non-homeland-security discretionary spending in the fiscal year that begins in October. Already, administration officials have begun an effort to consolidate 18 different economic and community development programs from five different departments into a single grant program at the Commerce Department. Programs with combined budgets totaling nearly $5.7 billion would be shoehorned into a $3.7 billion package. The largest component, the $4.1 billion Community Development Block Grant, could be cut as much as 40 percent, according to Republican and Democratic congressional aides.
But administration officials acknowledge that for every program on the chopping block, there will be constituencies that will fight hard to protect them. Mayors, governors, community activists and senators from both political parties have already mobilized to thwart the community development cuts.
"It looks like they're making a full-court press this time, but guess what? So are we," said Michael B. Coleman, the Democratic mayor of Columbus, Ohio, who chairs the U.S. Conference of Mayors' housing committee.
The White House will brandish independent studies on program effectiveness, appeals for lawmakers to set priorities, and, on occasion, some rhetorical creativity. The deep cuts to community development, for example, have been titled the "Strengthening America's Communities Initiative."
But independent studies on a program's lack of effectiveness have thus far been no match for the power of a corporate lobbyist or the tug of heartstrings by poor children marshaled to make the case for continuing a program.
"Every program that receives funding has someone that wants it funded," said C. Todd Jones, associate deputy secretary for budget at the Education Department, who will try this year to eliminate Even Start, a $225 million literacy program. "It's not too hard to discern who those individuals are."
The White House first tried to eliminate Even Start last year. The program, sponsored in 1989 by Rep. William F. Goodling (R-Pa.), who later was chairman of the House Education and the Workforce Committee, had admirable, even compelling goals, administration officials said. Federal money would be directed to impoverished children at risk of illiteracy and their illiterate or semi-literate parents.
But three successive independent studies, commissioned by the Education Department, concluded that the program was not working. The final study in 2003, by consulting firm Abt Associates Inc., said children and parents in 18 different Even Start programs showed literacy gains no greater than a control group that did not attend the programs.
"Despite the best of intentions behind the program -- nobody maligns the beneficial intent -- it is not demonstrating results," Jones said.