Budget busting on Capitol Hill

Every year it happens: The president sends a budget proposal to Congress, which promptly deems it “dead on arrival.” Of course, one reason Congress declares the proposal dead is so it can keep alive a slew of wasteful programs.

This year, President Bush proposes the outright elimination of 103 federal programs, claiming a savings of $7 billion, plus serious reductions in another 48 programs to save $11 billion more. But if Congress’ performance in previous years provides any guidance, the solons on Capitol Hill will accept less than 40 percent of these budget cuts.

Last year, in fact, the Democrat-led Congress did even worse, accepting barely 20 percent (29 of 141) of the president’s recommendations. Not only does Congress ignore most of these suggested savings, but it also adds billions of dollars each year in special-interest earmarks. Is it any wonder, then, that the national debt continues to metastasize?

These failures to economize are particularly galling when examined case by case. For each suggested cut, the administration provides a clear, straightforward explanation of how the targeted item is duplicative of another federal program, or otherwise wasteful.

To offer just one such example, President Bush suggests eliminating a type of grant originally intended to help public broadcasting companies convert to digital. “Funds have been provided for this program for five years. With the deadline [for switching to digital] of February 2009, funding made available in 2009 would be too late to benefit the companies.”

You can’t get clearer: Money that must be spent before a deadline isn’t any use after the deadline. Yet the bet here is that some members of Congress will shriek about how this philistine president wants to hobble educational television.

Even the administration, though, sometimes claims greater savings than it actually would achieve. A few of the proposed “cuts” merely mask increases of almost the same amounts in the programs that supposedly duplicate the listed items. Hence the “renewable energy” program cut of $36 million, under which the White House boasts that its proposed farm bill funds the same function with “a $35 million increase over 2008 enacted levels.”

Those aren’t savings; they are just a shell game. In most cases, though, President Bush does deserve praise for trying to stanch the fiscal bleeding. But it won’t do much good unless Congress stops rejecting the tourniquet.

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