Brother, can you spare $17 billion?

The president touts a series of spending cuts in his latest budget proposal, but they're not that significant in the scheme of things.

By Alex Koppelman
Published May 7, 2009 6:45PM (EDT)

On Thursday -- and not for the first time -- the Obama administration did its best to hype a relatively small cut in the federal budget as if it would make a truly significant dent in the national debt. Once again, and for good reason, no one's buying it.

Toward the end of last month, the White House had trumpeted the news that President Obama had asked his Cabinet to come up with a collective $100 million in cuts -- the equivalent of searching their couches for change. Thursday's news, at least, wasn't so absurd: The president announced that, for his new budget, his administration had identified 121 federal programs deserving of being slashed or eliminated altogether, for a total savings of $17 billion. That's quite a bit more than $100 million, obviously, but considering that the budget proposal as a whole comes in at about $3.4 trillion, it's basically the equivalent of someone with thousands of dollars of debt thinking they're making a big move by canceling their HBO subscription.

Obama, of course, was well aware of the reception his announcement was likely to get. And, in remarks he made to reporters on Thursday morning  he did his best to counter it.

"It is important, though, for all of you as you're writing up these stories to recognize that $17 billion taken out of our discretionary non-defense budget, as well as portions of our defense budget, are significant -- they mean something," the president said. "Now, none of this will be easy. For every dollar we seek to save there will be those who have an interest in seeing it spent. That's how unnecessary programs survive year after year. That's how budgets swell."

There is indeed something to be said for that point. Notably, though, as the Atlantic's Conor Clarke observes, it's actually an argument that Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., was making on the campaign trail last year. And, at the time, Obama didn't wholly buy it.

There's another point that the president made in the quote above that's worth noting. As he said, "For every dollar we seek to save there will be those who have an interest in seeing it spent." The administration may not be asking for this money, they may want to see those programs cut, but that doesn't mean Congress will agree. Some of this funding, as much as Obama pushes publicly for it to be cut, will end up in the budget. There was a good example of how that could happen in the president's remarks, actually. He cited $465 million designated for production of an alternate engine for the new Joint Strike Fighter as one of the big cuts in this package -- but as he observed, the Department of Defense has asked several times now that the funding be cut off, and every time, Congress has put it back in.



Alex Koppelman

Alex Koppelman is a staff writer for Salon.

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