Many Proposed Cuts Have Met Limited Success in the Past
Wednesday, February 8, 2006
In his State of the Union address and the new White House budget, President Bush has emphasized that he wants to abolish or substantially reduce 141 domestic programs next year, but just one in six of them are new targets. The rest are cuts that Congress has at least partly rejected in the past, administration sources confirmed yesterday.
According to budget documents and administration sources, the 91 programs that the White House is seeking to eliminate include 13 new proposals, including food packages for the poor sponsored by the Agriculture Department and an Energy Department initiative to promote nuclear education at universities. The other programs that would be terminated are ones the administration has attempted to eliminate, without success, at least once before and, in some cases, several times.
Similarly, 41 of the 50 programs for which the administration is recommending deep cuts are repeat proposals, the sources and documents show.
In a climate of record budget deficits and pressure from fiscal conservatives to rein in spending, the White House is drawing attention to what Budget Director Joshua B. Bolten has termed "a vigorous policy of spending restraint" in parts of the government unrelated to security. "We think there are a lot of programs that can be either taken out altogether or very substantially dialed down," Bolten said on Monday, as the White House proposed its $2.77 trillion spending plan for the fiscal year that begins in October.
Still, the large proportion of repeat proposals suggests that the administration could face a stiff hurdle in persuading lawmakers to accept cuts they have been unwilling to make in the past, especially with congressional elections approaching this fall.
Administration officials, speaking on the condition of anonymity about cuts for next year that they have not publicly named, counter that they have had some success by trying to chip away, year after year, at programs they believe have failed or have outlasted their usefulness. Several weeks ago, the White House released a document showing that Congress had agreed for the current fiscal year to about $6.5 billion in savings from eliminating or trimming domestic programs. That amount, administration officials pointed out, far exceeded similar savings of less than $400 million that lawmakers had approved the year before, even though the White House had targeted many of the same programs both years.
So far, the White House has been unwilling to identify the 141 programs the president is targeting for next year, for a total savings of $15 billion, although the Office of Management and Budget is preparing to release such a list by the end of the week.
In some cases, the new budget reconfigures proposals that have been particularly controversial in the past. The White House has abandoned its attempt last year to kill the popular Community Development Block Grants given by the Department of Housing and Urban Development and combine them with 17 smaller programs in a new form at the Commerce Department. The budget for next year would keep the grants at HUD but significantly reduce their funding.
In other cases, the budget reprises attempts to abolish programs that Congress has protected, such as another federal housing initiative known as Hope VI, that is designed to move low-income families from large housing projects into neighborhoods with less-concentrated poverty.
Among the reductions the budget proposes for the first time is a 25 percent cut in a rental housing program that provides grants to build, rehabilitate and operate homes for people who are elderly and poor.
Already, some congressional Democrats and left-leaning advocacy groups that disagree with Bush's spending priorities have begun to comb through the new budget to find the specific services that would be hit.
Meanwhile, top presidential aides began yesterday to try to sell the administration's spending plan on Capitol Hill. They encountered criticism, mainly from Democrats but also from a few Republicans.
Sen. Olympia J. Snowe (R-Maine), a moderate who is often a swing vote in the Finance Committee, told Treasury Secretary John W. Snow that the administration was "putting the cart before the horse" by urging Congress to extend tax cuts on capital gains and dividends, which expire in 2008. Snowe said the administration should focus instead on altering the alternative minimum tax, which was intended for the affluent but is applying each year to a growing number of middle-class families.
Later in the day, Sen. Pete V. Domenici (R-N.M.) praised spending increases the president is proposing for some science research and for math and science education. But Domenici warned Bolten that Bush was unlikely to win increases for his priorities if he insisted on cutting those of Congress, citing in particular proposed reductions for fossil fuel research.
Democrats focused their criticism in two directions: on Bush's recommendation to slow the growth of Medicare by $36 billion and the White House's strategy of cutting social services while trying to making permanent several tax cuts. Administration officials reiterated yesterday that the tax measures would strengthen the economy. Sen. Kent Conrad (D-N.D.) replied: "Tax cuts are a key reason why the revenue side of the equation has collapsed."
Research editor Lucy Shackelford and staff writer Jonathan Weisman contributed to this report.