121 Cuts

Is President Obama ready for a budget battle?

It's an annual event: When the president issues his budget for the coming fiscal year, he not only proposes new spending, but rolls out a series of suggested cuts in poorly performing programs. But this year, with the broader focus on massive growth in federal spending to shore up the economy, the ritual seemed even more hollow than it usually does.

In early May, President Obama unveiled his formal fiscal 2010 budget, including a list of 121 proposed cuts to federal programs that added up to a savings of about $17 billion. Before the naysayers had a chance to note that in the scheme of things, that's not a lot of money, he pre-emptively declared that they just didn't get it-in two ways.

First, acknowledging that several of his specific proposals would produce less than $1 million in savings, Obama said, "in Washington, I guess that's considered trivial. Outside of Washington, that's still considered a lot of money."

Second, he argued that "these savings, large and small, add up." The $17 billion, he said, would pay for $2,500 tuition tax credits for millions of students and larger Pell Grants, with money left over to cover all federal expenses related to protecting national parks.

With regard to the president's first point, the sense of relative triviality of the numbers was not actually confined to Washington and its environs. Bloggers, columnists and armchair budget analysts were quick to point out that in the context of numbers like $3.4 trillion (the size of the entire federal budget under Obama's proposal) and $787 billion (the amount of economic stimulus spending authorized earlier this year in the Recovery Act), $17 billion really is not a lot of money.

As to Obama's second point, while the numbers do indeed add up to a sum equal to fairly substantial federal spending in several key areas, it's unlikely that Congress will have the discipline to make the kind of trade-offs he envisions. In fact, Obama didn't even get one news cycle before members of his own party on Capitol Hill began sniping at his proposed reductions.

Rep. Earl Pomeroy, D-N.D., vowed to fight a proposal to cut direct federal payments to farmers with annual sales totaling more than $500,000-a move Obama's budget said would save $85 million in fiscal 2010. Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., decried proposed cuts to a $400 million program to provide federal assistance to states and localities to cover the costs of incarcerating undocumented immigrants.

Obama seemed to anticipate lawmakers' reactions. "None of this will be easy," he acknowledged. "For every dollar we seek to save, there will be those who have an interest in seeing it spent." So the question is, is the president willing to fight for his cuts?

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