Ripped from the pages of the Washington Post comes a very interesting story about how politicians stacked the deck against making real spending cuts at the same time they claimed they were making record spending cuts back in April 2011, as they also claimed success in averting a shutdown of the federal government. Let’s set the stage first by revisiting President Obama’s weekly address proclaiming the achievement:
But how did that made-in-Washington D.C. “achievement” play out in the real world?
Nearly two years later, however, these landmark budget cuts have fallen far short of their promises.
In some areas, they did bring significant cutbacks in federal spending. Grants for clean water dried up. Cities got less money for affordable housing.
But the bill also turned out to be an epic kind of Washington illusion. It was stuffed with gimmicks that made the cuts seem far bigger—and the politicians far bolder—than they actually were.
How big was the illusion? The Washington Post did some analysis:
To sketch the bill’s biggest impacts, The Washington Post focused on the 16 largest individual cuts. Each, in theory, sliced at least $500 million from the federal budget. Together, they accounted for $26.1 billion, two-thirds of the total.
In four of those cases, the real-world impact was difficult to measure. The Department of Homeland Security officially declined to comment about a $557 million reduction. The Department of State, the Department of Agriculture and the Federal Emergency Management Agency—whose cuts totaled $1.9 billion—simply did not answer The Post’s questions despite repeated requests over the past month.
Among the other 12 cases, there were at least seven where the cuts caused only minimal real-world disruptions or none at all.
Often, this was made possible by a little act of Washington magic. Agencies got credit for killing what was, in reality, already dead.
At the Census Bureau, for instance, officials had already said they didn’t need the more than $6 billion they had spent the year before. That money had paid for the once-a-decade 2010 Census. There wasn’t, of course, another census planned in 2011.
But to Congress, that was still a cut. The budget bill formally revoked the “budget authority” needed to spend the $6 billion that the Census Bureau didn’t want. On paper, it looked like a huge reduction. But, at the Census Bureau, no employees were laid off. No projects were finished late.
At the Transportation Department, Congress canceled $630 million in “orphan earmarks.” These were the wandering ghosts of the highway budget: pots of money assigned for specific road projects, which were still sitting unspent years and years later.
Were any of the supposed cuts real? It turns out that some were, although what those cuts really do is shed light on the priorities of the federal government’s bureaucrats:
Not all the bill’s cuts were illusory, however. The Post’s analysis found five large cuts that turned out to be very real.
None of them actually caused an agency in Washington to shed federal personnel. Instead, they reduced the money that passed through those agencies to state and local projects.
To recap this point, given a choice between trimming the federal employee payroll and their extremely generous benefits or trimming the amount of money that might go to benefit Americans who live outside of the Washington D.C. metropolitan area, the people who are currently running the federal government sided with their own bureaucrats against the American people.
That, perhaps more than anything else, explains how Washington D.C. works (or not). Those federal government workers, by the way, are now demanding a larger pay raise than even President Obama feels they deserve.