Smoke, mirrors are prominent in budget plan

Cuts already in place, accounting tricks help reach $38B reduction
2011-04-12T00:00:00Z Smoke, mirrors are prominent in budget plan Arizona Daily Star
April 12, 2011 12:00 am

WASHINGTON - A close look at the government-shutdown-dodging agreement to cut federal spending by $38 billion reveals that lawmakers significantly eased the fiscal pain by pruning money left over from previous years, using accounting sleight of hand and going after programs President Obama had targeted anyway.

Such moves permitted Obama to save favorite programs - Pell grants for poor college students, health research and "Race to the Top" aid for public schools, among others - from Republican knives.

The full details of Friday's agreement weren't being released until late Monday, when it was officially submitted to the House. But the picture already emerging is of legislation financed with a lot of one-time savings and cuts that officially "score" as savings to pay for spending elsewhere, but that often have little to no actual impact on the deficit.

As a result of the legerdemain, Obama was able to reverse many of the cuts passed by House Republicans in February when the chamber adopted a bill to slash this year's budget by more than $60 billion. In doing so, the White House protected favorites like the Head Start early learning program, while maintaining the maximum Pell grant of $5,550 and funding for Obama's "Race to the Top" initiative that provides grants to better-performing schools.

Obama also repelled Republican moves to cut $1 billion in grants for community health centers and $500 million from biomedical research at the National Institutes of Health, while blocking them from "zeroing out" the AmeriCorps national service program and subsidies for public broadcasting.

Instead, the cuts that actually will make it into law are far tamer, including cuts to earmarks, unspent census money, leftover federal construction funding and $2.5 billion from the most recent renewal of highway programs that can't be spent because of restrictions set by other legislation.

Another $3.5 billion comes from unused spending authority from a program providing health care to children of lower-income families.

About $10 billion of the cuts already have been enacted as the price for keeping the government open as negotiations progressed; lawmakers tipped their hand regarding another $10 billion or so when the House passed a spending bill last week that ran aground in the Senate.

For instance, the spending measure reaps $350 million by cutting a one-year program enacted in 2009 for dairy farmers then suffering from low milk prices.

Another $650 million comes by not repeating a one-time infusion into highway programs passed that same year. And just last Friday, Congress approved Obama's $1 billion request for high-speed rail grants - crediting themselves with $1.5 billion in savings relative to last year.

The underlying issue is long overdue legislation to finance the day-to-day budget of every Cabinet department, including the Pentagon, for the already half-completed 2011 fiscal year. The measure caps 2011 funding for such operating budgets at about $1.2 trillion.

About $10 billion of the cuts comes from targeting appropriations accounts previously used by lawmakers for so-called earmarks, those pet projects like highways, water projects, community development grants and new equipment for police and fire departments. Republicans had already engineered a ban on earmarks when taking back the House this year.

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