It's cold outside and millions of Americans are struggling to pay their heating bills. The good news is that there's a federal program, called the Low Income Home Energy Assistance Program, that helps these people.
And the bad news? President Obama wants to cut its funding roughly in half.
OK, wants is probably the wrong word here. President Obama knows how important this program is to the individuals who depend upon it. He also knows that cutting social services funding can't be good for the anemic economic recovery.
But Obama has also proposed to freeze non-defense, discretionary domestic spending for five years. The trouble with that idea, as some of us have argued, is that it commits the administration to cuts like this.
National Journal's Marc Ambinder was the first to report the LIHEAP cuts, which senior administration officials and others familiar with budget discussions have since discussed with several news outlets. These officials say that the cut is not as bad as it sounds: The Obama proposal, to allocate $2.57 billion, is apparently the same allocation that the program got in fiscal year 2008. And, these sources say, energy prices are actually lower than they were in 2008, when Congress increased the funding. "In real terms, under our budget, LIHEAP funding will be at levels similar to the Clinton Administration," a senior administration official told Ambinder.
To be sure, it's likely the Republicans will end up calling for even steeper cuts, not just to LIHEAP but to other worthy programs. And it's possible that, by proposing less severe cuts now, Obama will gain enough credibility with moderate voters and lawmakers to defeat those proposals.
Then again, it's also possible that the Obama administration is effectively bargaining with itself.
Either way, it's worth noting just how absurd and bloodless this whole discussion about spending cuts has become. As far as I can tell, nobody seriously claims that it's possible to reduce LIHEAP funding without reducing its reach. The program has its share of fraud and waste, but, unless I'm missing something, it's not nearly enough to justify this big a cut.
Remember: Energy prices may be lower than they were in 2008, but the economy is in worse shape, too. That means more people need the help.
LIHEAP has some strong defenders, particularly in the Northeast and Upper Great Lakes. Ambinder's article included protests from two senior Massachusetts lawmakers, Representative Ed Markey and Senator John Kerry. Other Democrats are likely to chime in. Moderate northeastern Republicans, like Senators Scott Brown and Olympia Snowe, may join them.
They, too, understand the administration's political calculation. But they also understand the needs of their constituents. They are right to scream.
Update: I rewrote the section on the politics of the budget debate to clarify what I meant. I also added a reference to the fact that the economy is worse now than it was in 2008.