So You Want to Cut Spending

Back in 2011 there was a titanic fight between President Obama and the newly energized House Republicans over the federal budget. The ballyhooed result, which averted the frightening specter of a “government shutdown,” was “the largest annual spending cut in our history,” in the words of President Obama and the national media. I raised some doubts about it at the time, noting that it certainly wasn’t the largest budget cut in history and then pointing to a National Journal story suggesting that the cuts weren’t really there.

Now, in the Sunday Washington Post, David Fahrenthold follows up: What happened to the much-touted $38 billion in cuts (out of a $3,800 billion budget)? Oops. Not so much: 

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.

In the real world, in fact, many of their “cuts” cut nothing at all. The Transportation Department got credit for “cutting” a $280 million tunnel that had been canceled six months earlier. It also “cut” a $375,000 road project that had been created by a legislative typo, on a road that did not exist.

At the Census Bureau, officials got credit for a whopping $6 billion cut, simply for obeying the calendar. They promised not to hold the expensive 2010 census again in 2011.

Today, an examination of 12 of the largest cuts shows that, thanks in part to these gimmicks, federal agencies absorbed $23 billion in reductions without losing a single employee.

Read it all. It’s just an amazing investigation into what happens in the bureaucracy when Congress announces it’s cut the budget, and the reporters move on.

Which is why I wrote last week that if you really want to cut spending, you should shut down agencies and programs. Then you have some hope that the spending will actually stop.