McCain: End subsidies for smaller airports.

By Al Kamen
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, February 15, 2011; 11:27 PM

President Obama talked Tuesday about "difficult" and "tough" budget cuts he was prepared to make in programs he cares about. And there may be more to come.

Despite the partisan divide, other cuts floating about on the Hill may be gaining bipartisan support, such as one by Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) to scuttle the Essential Air Service program.

The program, as these things often do, began small - in 1978 as a $7 million effort for 10 years to help some small towns keep their air service in the era of deregulation. It's now mushroomed, to $163 million a year (or $1.63 billion over 10 years, as we now talk about these things) going to 109 communities - not including those in Alaska.

So Worland, Wyo., population around 5,000, gets $1.7 million a year; Great Bend, Kan., population 16,000, gets $1.3 million a year; and Decatur, Ill., with a population of 76,000, gets a bit more than $3 million a year. (In this area, Staunton, Va., stands to lose a subsidy of about $1.9 million.) See above for a link to the full list.

McCain, whose home state gets $6.2 million a year for four small airports - including the one in Show Low, population 12,000 - nonetheless feels it's necessary to "end subsidies to airlines that serve small airports when there isn't the market need or volume of consumers," spokeswoman Brooke Buchanan said.

A Federal Aviation Administration analysis says about 99.95 percent of Americans live within 120 miles of a public airport that handles more than 10,000 takeoffs and landings a year. Then there is John Murtha Johnstown-Cambria County Airport in Pennsylvania, which gets $1.3 million for serving fewer than 30 people a day.

In many cases, cutting off aid would be a tough blow to towns hit hard in recent decades and especially in the past couple of years. Still, the votes may be there to kill the program. That's because groups such as the nonpartisan Citizens Against Government Waste, the conservative National Taxpayers Union and Freedom Works, a conservative group that has linked itself to the tea party, are all agitating for it and, worse, they are warning they will count this vote in their ratings or scorecards.

Most Democrats initially were lukewarm to the idea - until they took a look at the list of towns affected and realized that the overwhelming majority were in GOP strongholds. "Now some of the Democrats are thinking 'Why not?' " a source said.

Might be the only time they score points with the tea party.

Raise another Cuba libre

Also not on Obama's list to be axed are some perennial Loop Favorites, the Martis - as in Radio Marti and Television Marti - which eat up $28.5 million a year and accomplish pretty much nothing, since hardly anyone tunes in. (That's because the commies block their signals except when TV Marti broadcasts important baseball games.) The White House budget proposal has their budget going up only $25,000, which is down more than $1 million from two years ago.

The program's budget proposal acknowledges that only about 2 percent of Cubans polled admit they tune in once a week - and even that might be only for the soaps and such.

Still, even if there's no particular benefit, 136 jobs in Miami are at stake and the Cuba lobby wants the program, so it won't be cut. Well, democracy can be a messy thing. And besides, on a slow day, it's good to have them to kick around.

The thin green line

For most presidential appointees, resignation letters are pretty much pro forma - a couple of paragraphs expressing appreciation for having gotten the honor of serving and so on.

That's why the 1,000-word epistle - largely a self-assessment of a job exceedingly well done - by Neil Barofsky, the Bush-selected special inspector general for the Troubled Assets Relief Program (TARP), was such a stunner.

Barofsky, after a line about honor and privilege to serve, explains to Obama how, after being confirmed "unanimously" by the Senate, he took a small office of two people and, with strong support from the Hill, was able to expand his domain to more than 140 "highly skilled" auditors and investigators, making it a "robust law enforcement agency to bring to justice those who sought to profit criminally" from TARP. Echoes of Eliot Ness here.

That's why, even as TARP winds down and the banking-assistance portion - as many had predicted - may be soon turning a profit, SIGTARP's budget has gone from $23 million in fiscal 2010 to $36 million in fiscal 2011 to a proposed $47 million.

The budget last year included $14,000 for SIGTARP badges and insignia, $22,000 for ammunition, and $39,000 for personal armor for SIGTARP agents. (You can never tell when a larcenous bank teller might be packing heat.)

"The results have been rapid and tangible," Barofsky told Obama in the letter, noting that his office was "the lead law enforcement agency in the criminal investigation and prosecution of Lee Farkas, former chairman of Taylor Bean & Whitaker." According to the indictment, Farkas never received any TARP money.

We think the claim may have at least some merit, but the Justice Department, along with the FBI, might strongly dispute that characterization of SIGTARP's role. Anyway, thanks in part to SIGTARP's diligence and the Treasury Department's adoption of SIGTARP's recommendations, Barofsky says, things are definitely on the right track because of his agency's "truly remarkable positive impact."

Did it, as far as we can tell, without firing a shot.

No asterisk here

Stan Musial, who received the Presidential Medal of Freedom from Obama on Tuesday, has of course been to the White House before. In fact, he was in the Oval Office after the All-Star Game here in July 1962, hanging with President John F. Kennedy, who, a year letter reintroduced the award to honor civilian achievement.

John Zentay, a native of St. Louis and legislative assistant for the late Sen. Stuart Symington (D-Mo.), helped arrange the meeting. Zentay, now a senior counsel at DLA Piper, attended Tuesday's ceremony.

Research editor Alice Crites contributed to this column.

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