Gearing up for the budget fight, the Obama administration is trying to show it's the reasonable party by offering up cuts to programs its favors. Budget director Jacob Lew writes:
In each of the past two years, the administration has put forward about $20 billion in savings from ending some programs and reducing funds for others. This entailed finding programs that were duplicative, outdated and ineffective. But to achieve the deeper cuts needed to support this spending freeze, we have had to look beyond the obvious and cut spending for purposes we support. We had to choose programs that, absent the fiscal situation, we would not cut.
Since they were instituted, community service block grants have helped to support community action organizations in cities and towns across the country. These are grassroots groups working in poor communities, dedicated to empowering those living there and helping them with some of life’s basic necessities. These are the kinds of programs that President Obama worked with when he was a community organizer, so this cut is not easy for him.
Yet for the past 30 years, these grants have been allocated using a formula that does not consider how good a job the recipients are doing. The president is proposing to cut financing for this grant program in half, saving $350 million, and to reform the remaining half into a competitive grant program, so that funds are spent to give communities the most effective help.
Another difficult cut is a reduction of $125 million, or about a quarter of current financing, to the Great Lakes Restoration Initiative, which supports environmental cleanup and protection. And a third is a reduction in the Community Development Block Grant program. These flexible grants help cities and counties across the nation finance projects in areas like housing, sewers and streets, and economic development in low- and moderate-income neighborhoods.
The strategy is that, when the budget showdown occurs, the White House wants to hold the center and show it's willing to support some cuts, but it won't go as far as Republicans demand. The whole context is a GOP budget that is placing the entire weight of deficit reduction upon the domestic portion of the discretionary budget. The Wall Street Journal editorial page complains that attacks on the GOP budget plans, being formulated by Paul Ryan, are being attacked in contradictory ways:
It's amusing to hear the media and some Democrats joining tea partiers in saying that Republicans are failing to meet their budget pledge to voters. In the same breath they also say that Mr. Ryan's cuts of 20% or more to some programs are too deep and painful. The White House is even saying the cuts could torpedo the economic recovery—though the stimulus couldn't keep unemployment below 9%.
So Republicans can't win: Their cuts are attacked as both too large and too small at the same time.
Actually, there's not much of a contradiction here. The GOP is leaving untouched Medicare, Medicaid, Social Security, Defense, Homeland Security, and -- by necessity -- interest on the national debt. And, of course, they wouldn't think of increasing revenues. What remains is a myriad of programs that include a lot of vital functions of the federal government but represent a small slice of the budget. The Ryan budget would cut them on average by 15%, but still make a tiny dent in the federal budget. The overall point is that a deficit reduction effort focused entirely on reducing one small category of domestic spending is both destructive and ineffectual.