Politics & Policy

Wielding the Budget Knife

The Bowles-Simpson “illustrative list” is only that — an illustration. But it will give novice legislators an appropriate starting point.

While nearly every Republican candidate running this cycle highlighted the need to cut spending and reduce the deficit, very few offered much in the way of specifics. Fortunately, Erskine Bowles and Alan Simpson, co-chairs of the National Commission on Fiscal Responsibility and Reform, aren’t running for office, and they have proposed a bold, extensive, and relatively specific “illustrative list” of more than $200 billion in spending cuts and adjustments to help rein in the deficit. For newly elected members of Congress wishing to make good on campaign promises to “restore fiscal sanity” to Washington, it is an appropriate starting point.

‐ “In order to tackle our fiscal imbalance, everyone must sacrifice,” the report states. “That should include those at the top.” Fittingly, the first recommendation is a 15 percent cut to the congressional and White House budgets, a move that would save around $800 million. Also singled out for cuts are the federal travel budget ($14 billion per year) and federal vehicle budget ($4 billion per year), both of which have ballooned substantially over the past decade. These could yield at least $1 billion in savings.

‐ Conservatives are understandably thrilled by the proposal to eliminate federal funding for the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, the organization responsible for funding NPR, PBS, and their various affiliates, saving close to $500 million. The report also proposes ending expensive federal subsidies for fossil-fuel research and the development of commercial space flight, saving more than $2 billion. Funding for public institutions like the Smithsonian and the National Park Service could be cut by $300 million or more, with those reductions easily offset by imposing modest visitor fees.

‐ In addition to the $2.7 billion in “assessed” dues the United States pays to the United Nations (more than any other nation by far), we also give more than $3.5 billion in “voluntary” funds. The report proposes trimming at least $300 million (why not all of it?) from that figure, as well as imposing a very modest 10 percent reduction in foreign-aid payments, which would save $4.6 billion.

‐ An entire section of the report is devoted to “outdated, low priority, and under-performing programs,” of which there is no shortage when it comes to the federal government. Most people have probably never heard of organizations like the Office of Safe and Drug-Free Schools, which the report proposes to eliminate altogether because, among other factors, “the results hoped for in [its] creation have not been demonstrated.” Doing so would save an estimated $1.8 billion. An additional $300 million could be saved by getting rid of the sprawling network of federal economic-aid programs known collectively as the Economic Development Administration, which the Government Accountability Office has repeatedly identified as superfluous and wasteful.

‐ Ever heard of the Rural Utilities Service? The report says that while its stated goal of providing rural areas with public utilities is “noteworthy,” its programs are “outdated” and “provide limited or questionable public policy benefits,” and could easily be eliminated, saving more than $500 million. And what about the Hollings Manufacturing Extension Partnership? Or the Baldrige National Quality Program? These organizations use federal funds to provide support and present awards to U.S. businesses, services that could more efficiently be provided by the private sector. Doing away with them would save more than $120 million annually. One can only imagine how many similarly redundant federal programs could be eliminated, and how much additional money that could save.

‐ Half of the recommended cuts come from defense spending, and they are mostly in line with the recommendations of Defense Secretary Robert Gates and his “efficiencies initiatives” aimed at eliminating waste within the Department of Defense. The report proposes doubling Gates’s recommended cuts to defense contracting, saving $11 billion, and reducing procurement spending by 15 percent, which would save $20 billion. Another $7 billion could be saved by cutting the Defense Department’s Research, Development, Test & Evaluation budget, which would still leave spending levels above the peak of the Reagan years (adjusted for inflation).

Bloated budgets for base support and facilities maintenance could manage almost $3.5 billion in cuts without considerable disruption, and eliminating two special school systems operated by the Department of Defense for the children of military personnel — established when Southern schools were still segregated, and no longer viewed as necessary — could save another $1.1 billion.


The plan’s total recommendation of more than $200 billion worth of federal spending cuts may not seem like much when stacked up against a national deficit of $1.3 trillion (and growing). But it’s not insignificant by any means, and, as the report suggests, the list is merely “illustrative.” The Simpson-Bowles plan is at least an excellent icebreaker to a conversation on spending that is desperately needed, one that goes far beyond the vague and guarded rhetoric of the campaign trail.

— Andrew Stiles writes for National Review Onlines Battle ’10 blog.

Andrew StilesAndrew Stiles is a political reporter for National Review Online. He previously worked at the Washington Free Beacon, and was an intern at The Hill newspaper. Stiles is a 2009 ...


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