Critics Say Obama's Nip-Tuck Budget Cuts Are Merely Symbolic

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By Philip Rucker
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, April 24, 2009

These tough times call for sacrifice. So the Obama administration has embarked on a belt-tightening plan that sounds, to some veteran federal budget watchers, like fodder for a Jay Leno monologue.

The Education Department will eliminate a Bush-era "education policy attaché" based in Paris -- the one in France -- whose annual salary, housing allowance and business expenses exceed $630,000. Employees at the Department of Veterans Affairs will forgo their training junkets to hot spots such as Nashville and satisfy themselves with videoconferencing.

The Department of Homeland Security has started buying its supplies in bulk and -- to the surprise and delight of bureaucrats -- discovered it's much cheaper that way.

This is not exactly the revolution in government efficiency that President Obama has promised. Nonetheless, he and the agencies trumpeted the changes, staples of any money-conscious organization, this week as examples of how they intend to cut $100 million over the next 90 days to try to trim a budget deficit projected to reach $1.4 trillion next year.

Experts said the cost-cutting measures will do little to restore fiscal responsibility and are at best a symbolic early move. At worst, they said, the savings, which amount to a fraction of 1 percent of Obama's $3.6 trillion budget, are so obvious and picayune that by making them a major focus of his first Cabinet meeting, the president may have given the impression that he is not serious about controlling spending.

"You're cherry-picking the base of the tree on stuff that is not innovative," said Paul C. Light, a scholar of federal bureaucracy at New York University. "Purchasing in bulk? Wow, that's a bold idea! Teleconferencing? Holy moly! None of this stuff is the kind of bold sweep you're hoping Obama will bring to the management of government."

Isabel V. Sawhill, a Clinton administration budget official who directs the Budgeting for National Priorities project at the Brookings Institution, said she feared the cuts would be "lampooned" on late-night talk shows.

"I'm not sure I thought it was a good step towards convincing people that he cares about fiscal responsibility," she said.

The cost-cutting measures are just one part of the administration's actions to curtail spending. The full federal budget that will be released next month may eliminate programs across many agencies that are deemed inefficient or wasteful, said Kenneth Baer, spokesman for the Office of Management and Budget.

"They're not just looking for savings, but also looking for the larger game that's out there in the wild: the programs that aren't operating effectively or are no longer fulfilling the goal that's set for them," he said. The $100 million cuts, he added, are "by no means the entire approach to making an efficient and effective government. It's just a small part, but it's an important part."

Asked at Monday's Cabinet meeting whether $100 million is merely a drop in the bucket, Obama said the savings add up.

"None of these things alone are going to make a difference," he said. "But cumulatively they would make an extraordinary difference because they start setting a tone. And so what we're going to do is line by line, page by page, $100 million there, $100 million here, pretty soon, even in Washington, it adds up to real money."

Light countered: "I think it's more like $100 billion here and $100 billion there adds up to real money."

The new efficiency savings raise questions about why such measures were not taken earlier. At Homeland Security, for example, procurement officials spent about $100 million on office supplies in 2007 but didn't use a department-wide purchase agreement about 94 percent of the time, Secretary Janet Napolitano said.

DHS spokeswoman Amy Kudwa said the agency neglected to buy supplies in bulk because when it was created in 2003, "the focus was ensuring the department had the tools it needed -- quickly -- to carry out its vital mission."

By buying supplies in larger volumes, the agency says it can save up to $52 million over five years. At the outset, the department also spent $3 million on "branding" to create logos for its agencies. But Napolitano is eliminating that spending.

At other agencies, cost-cutting measures include switching from paper to electronic correspondence for immigrant visa processing and for publishing judicial forfeiture notices. The State Department will begin buying cellphones, PDAs, furniture and medical supplies through one vendor to receive volume discounts.

At the Agriculture Department, officials recently took several steps, including using tax data to ensure that ineligible farmers do not receive subsidy payments, saving a projected $16 million.

The Education Department, meanwhile, will eliminate about 1,400 desktop computers and will ask employees to share printers, saving about $8.7 million, spokeswoman Sandra Abrevaya said. The Bush-era position in Paris -- the only overseas slot in the department -- is an attaché to the U.S. Mission to UNESCO, the U.N. Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization, a job most recently held by Sally Lovejoy, a former House staff member. Lovejoy, who left the job Jan. 15, had responsibilities including working with former first lady Laura Bush in her role as the honorary ambassador for the U.N. Decade of Literacy.

Robert Bixby, executive director of the nonpartisan Concord Coalition, called the cost-cutting measures "silly."

"It just seems like such a low bar that it may actually send a signal opposite of what they intend," he said. "It's like if you're going to go on a diet and you announce that you're going to give up carrot sticks and water, people might question how serious you are about the diet."

Staff writers Spencer S. Hsu and Maria Glod contributed to this report.


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