Budget cut musings

March 22, 2011 | By | 10 Replies More

In the wake of the House voting to defund NPR last Thursday, and after weeks of rhetoric about cutting spending, I decided to take a 30,000 foot look at some of the budget line items of federal agencies and entities and come up with a list for the Congress to examine in detail.

First, I found several news cites (all with roughly the same wording) that a Congressional Budget Office (CBO) report found that cutting public radio funding would net zero savings but I couldn’t find the report on the CBO website. I did find a report (dated Feb 18th) on H.R. 2 (the one with the creative title “Repealing the Job-Killing Health Care Law Act”) passed by the House on January 19th informing Speaker Boehner that the effects of the passage of the resolution would increase deficits in the decade 2012-2021.

CBO and JCT [Joint Committee on Taxation] estimate that, on balance, the direct spending and revenue effects of enacting H.R. 2 would cause a net increase in federal budget deficits of $210 billion over the 2012-2021 period (see Table 1).

And buried at the end,

Although premiums in the individual market would be lower, on average, under H.R. 2 than under current law, many people would end up paying more for health insurance…


Disclosure: I’m cherry-picking the non-zero lines tagged “discretionary” from the FY2011 Public Budget Database outlays spreadsheet. I left off lots of departments and agencies. These are the cherries I picked. Be my guest and drill through the 4880 line items and offer up your own list. Also, I did’t want to click back and forth between FY11 and FY12 to “help” out next year, so these are just for the current as yet unapproved spending – it’s a little ironic that most of the “cuts” being bandied are not cuts, but rather budget items that have not yet been approved. Certainly, the FY12 version of these numbers would still need scrutiny. And just because I chose the $1.3 trillion in discretionary items doesn’t mean that any of the “mandatory” lines are funded properly. The non-zero line items tagged as mandatory total $1.9 trillion, so I’m sure there are opportunities for belt-tightening there. At $3.2T total, of course opportunities abound.

Disclaimer: I’m only suggesting that the programs/offices below get looked at hard, not cut indiscriminately. That would be foolish. Well, foolish to the sane.

(Any more “Discl…” words I can use?) And this will get messy, so please forgive in advance the formatting.

Credit: Architect of the Capitol

Let’s start with the Legislative Branch. I think the before you start cutting programs, you need to make sure your own House (and Senate) are in order. The outlays for the agency labeled “Legislative Branch” total more than $4.6B. Here are some to consider:

Senate: Salaries, Officers and Employees [Senate] – $179M

Senate: Senators’ Official Personnel and Office Expense Account – $402M

Senate: Sergeant at Arms and Doorkeeper of the Senate – $154M

House: Salaries and Expenses [House of Representatives] – $1.35B

Note: these are above the $123M mandatory compensation of members of the Senate and House, rank and file salaries being $174K, Majority/Minority Leaders being $193.400 and Speaker of the House being $223,500. That total for just salaries is $93,217,100.

Office of Compliance: Capitol Police – $265M

Legislative Branch Boards and Commissions: Open World Leadership Center Trust Fund – $16M

Legislative Branch Boards and Commissions: Capital Construction, Dwight D. Eisenhower Memorial Commission – $10M

Guess what, folks? If you trim just 10% off of the Legislative budget, you save nearly a half billion dollars.

Public domain photo

Executive Branch – $463M

Executive Branch: Office of National Drug Control Policy – $30M

Executive Branch: Iraq Relief and Reconstruction Fund – $47M (under the Bureau name of “Unanticipated Needs” – I think they are no longer unanticipated)

Oddly, the line item for compensation of the President is zero. Not sure where that’s stuck…


Now, on to the rest of the cherry picking….

Department of Agriculture – $32B overall

DA: Agriculture Research Service – $4.99B in 26 line items (there are some pretty fat discretionary budgets here)

DA: Agricultural Marketing Service – $107M

DA: Farm Income Stabilization – $1.97B

DA: Rural Development Bureau – $4.45B

(I’m leaving Forestry, WIC, and lots more off the 99 lines for the USDA; remember, this is my list)

Appalachian Regional Commission (no kidding – it’s real) – $75M

Northern Border Regional Commission – $2M

Christopher Columbus Fellowship Foundation (another “no kidding”) – $1M

Committee for Purchase from People who are Blind or Severely Disabled – $4M

Corporation for National and Community Service – $593M

Delta Regional Authority – $13M

Denali Commission (hello, Ms. Palin!) – $58M

Department of Commerce: Economic Development Administration – $575M

Commerce: National Telecommunications and Information Administration – $1.77B

Department of Defense – $733B (10% here would be $73B. They don’t get a pass; but because I used to be military, I know that Secretary Gates is hammering the JCS and services to cut costs. The increases seem to come from “unanticipated needs” or congressional earmarks for their constituencies. )

Department of Education – $101B (mixed feelings about this; fix the No Child Left debacle, but many states are targeting education so guess where Congress will look?)

Department of Energy: Fossil Energy Research and Development – $1.13B

DoE: Science (“General science and basic research”) – $5.34B

DoE: Power Marketing Administration – $503M (marketing hydropower?) – some of this is mandatory

Department of Homeland Security – $48.6B

DHS: Citizenship and Immigration Services – $299M (as contrasted with…)

DHS: Immigration and Customs Enforcement – $5.65B (see where we focus?)

Department of State – $27B

(did you know there were set asides for these?)

State: Conflict Stabilization Operations – $88M

State: Democracy Fund – $223M

State: Andean Counterdrug Program – $199M

Election Assistance Commission – $121M (not to be confused with…)

Federal Election Commission – $71M

Federal Mediation and Conciliation Service – $47M (bust the unions and this can go away!)

Intelligence Community Management Account – $647M

International Assistance Programs – $26B

Foreign Military Financing Programs $5.4B

Economic Support Fund – $6.9B

Agency for International Development – $6B ($17M also in here for Conflict Stabilization Operations)

Pakistan Counterinsurgency Capability Fund – $595B

Millennium Challenge Corporation – $1.85B (“helping lead fight against global poverty”?)

Office of Government Ethics – $14M (might want to increase this one)

American Battle Monuments Commission – $69M (These are memorials and cemeteries outside the US)

Buried in these and those I didn’t call out are the oil subsidies (supposedly $6B to $39B annually?) and farm subsidies ($10B over 10 years? – From The Atlantic: Will the 2011 Budget Finally Cut Farm Subsidies?). James Barrett at Custom Solar writes

Not long ago, I helped the nice people at the Environmental Law Institute work on a project to identify and quantify federal subsidies to various energy industries…. It turns out that the hardest part of the project was defining what a subsidy is. …defining and identifying energy subsidies is a far more convoluted undertaking than the common sense nature of the issue indicates.

No Kidding. You can read his article here.

If you do feel like playing this game, I recommend you hide all those extra columns, freeze the panes on that spreadsheet and use filtering – it’s a mess…and that’s just the top level roll up.


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Category: Politics

About the Author ()

Jim is a husband of more than 27 years, father of four home-schooled sons (26, 23, 16 and 14), engineer delighting in virtually all things technical, with more than a passing interest in history, religions, arts, most sciences (particularly physics) and skepticism.

Comments (10)

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  1. Erich Vieth says:

    Jim: Thank you for this effort. Budget analysis seems like a perfect project for crowd sourcing. I would like to take a swipe at it in the next week or so. You're comment about 10% is simple, undeniable and stunning.

  2. Tim Hogan says:

    Thanks Jim! Now, if you can point me to the areas of tax subsidies and corporate welfare programs which decrease federal tax revenues and are unecessary, we might get somehwere!

  3. Jim Razinha says:

    Tim, read the James Barrett excerpt again. Dude had some resources available and had a hard time. I don't have resources or time.

    I'm moving on…I might get an urge in the future, but picking apart the budget history for the Reagan/Republican fiscal responsibility myth and then this was more than enough.

    Now, if you're of a mind to dig and post, I could have fun pulling threads that you find, or think might be those subsidies. Tax law is a freaking nightmare…not something an armchair number geek really wants to lose half a life trying to understand.

  4. Niklaus Pfirsig says:

    I realized the political strategy of the pro-corporation, anti-government, TEA-party patriots. They want a government shutdown, but only for a few days, preferably over a weekend.

    The internet is being flooded with AstroTurf FUD about non-essential government employees. A perfect shitstorm of dis-information and misinformation intended to convince the general public that the government is filled with inefficiency and wastes taxpayer money.

    The strategy is simple. Force a partial government shutdown, but keep it short enough that the public is relatively unaffected, that used the lack of effect to gain Republican part support for dismantaling regulatory agencies, and as a rationalization for the corporate rading of entitlement programs under the guise of privatization.

    The current estimate is that 800,000 of the approximate 2.5 million federal civil service employees are considered non-essential.

    The question that we should be asking is this:

    Who are the non-essential government employees?

    For starters consider that the a great many services may be considered non-essential in the short term only.

    Here is a partial list.

    Mid and low level clerks, accountants, bookkeepers, inspectors, and auditors are considered non-essential. The people who administer tests for licensing doctors, food inspectors, INS workers, the Small Business administration, regulators in the SEC the FCC and the FDA, SSA case and social workers, and the support staff for law enforcement offices.

    The government can limp along for a few days without these people, but go for a month or two, and these workers seem less and less non-essential.

    I like the assurance that my doctor is licensed. I like to drive over a bridge without fear that it will collapse, or knowing that peices of that overpass up ahead won't fall on my head as I drive under it.

    I like the assurance that the food I buy is not some 15 year old can with a "new" label slapped on it, and I like the idea that prescription pills I take actually have medicine in them instead of rat poison.

    I like the idea of someone investigating crooked bankers who would take my hard earned cash,

    All of these assurances depend on the so-called non-essential workers.

    • Erich Vieth says:

      Niklaus: Well written. I agree entire. I really with we would dispense with the term "free market," because the market will be regulated one way or another. If it is not regulated transparently by the government, it will be regulated opaquely by the government or opaquely by financially powerful entities and powerful people.

      We should be asking what kind of regulation makes good sense. There have been many excesses in the past, and there have been many damaging omissions motivated by the name of maintaining the "free market." We should make rule that make sense and we should scrap rules that don't make sense. That's what they do in functional families and corporations. Why would we think that government, or society at large, should be any different?

  5. Dave Jenkins says:


    Your doctor is licensed by the AMA and the state, not the Feds– so there's government involved, but even without the federal government, the AMA would go on licensing. It's your trust in the peer-related review, not some government stamp that let's you trust him.

    With the bridge that you drive over or underpass you pass under, would you feel the same trust if that were a toll road completely funded privately? The car you drive in is the product of a corporation, and you seem to be trusting that plenty. The only reason that roads are "public" and "funded by the government" is because it seemed an easy way to forward the economy by taxing everyone a little and building the road. Because the road was built with public funds, the inspectors are public (paid for by the organization that will get sued when that bridge collapses). If this were a private org, the same relationships would be in place.

    My point is this: government inspectors and clerks and all that bureaucracy is necessary on a certain level, but if private companies were to provide the same services/products/commodities, the same inspectors would be in place. The advantage to having "government" inspectors is that they (supposedly) are working for the benefit of the people, not their employers.

  6. Niklaus Pfirsig says:

    Dave you are mistaken. Medical licenses are issued under the authority of state and federal licensing boards. The AMA is a private, incorporated association of medical professionals that has a strong presences and influence on medical licensing boards. The AMA also is involved in lobbying efforts against single payer health and any form of nationalized health care, as well as limiting liability in medical malpractice lawsuits. In 2010, they spent over $22 million on lobbying.

    I am old enough to recall a few privately operated tool roads and bridges.Most former toll roads and bridges were nationalized years ago. The magical profit motive demands that the investors make a profit, to provide that return on investment to the private investors demands either raising the tolls, or cutting their budget for maintenance, or in some cases both. Since there alternatives to using the toll roads, increasing the tolls resulted in an a loss of revenues. Most current toll roads in the US that I am aware of are operated by the state governments or by specially chartered non profit corporations that use most of the toll revenues to pay for maintenance and safety, not for inflated compensation packages for upper-level management.

    By contrast, the interstate highway system was built with federal funds. The ongoing maintenance is provided by the state governments, with state and federal funding.

    There is a mythology being promoted by the pro-corporate crowd that civil service employees are lazy, nonproductive and can't be fired, where the private sector doesn't have that problem. The reality is quite different.

    State and federal civil service have strict procedures in place of assessment, promotion, demotion and dismissal of civil service employees. To be hired into the civil service requires rigorous position related testing and in many cases, accreditation. Dismissal requires similar documentation of incompetency or laziness.

    In the private sector, however, personal prejudices and favoritism influence staffing decisions. In my profession (software development), there is currently a bias favoring younger programmers, based on the rationalization that the young guys fresh from college will be more up to date on the latest software technology.

    Older developers, like myself, have learned though experience a large repertoire of algorithms, which are independent of the programming language and we find it much easier to adapt to new languages by basing the new ideas in reference to what we already know. Younger programmers are usually locked into a certaing product line and are less flexible.

    But, when a HR person at Bobs Grocery Store chain hires a programmer for the main office, a younger applicant will almost always get t he job.

    Also, while the car I drive in is indeed the product of a corporation (GM in my case), I can feel relatively safe because the NHTSA, a federal agency set the standards and oversee the safety of the automotive industry.

    The NHTSA is also considered a non-essential agency. It polices the auto industry and has protected drivers from hundreds of manufacturing defects through mandated recalls of defective cars.

  7. Tim Hogan says:

    Guys, the government is filled with inefficient people and wasteful spending, i.e., check any Republican office holder!

    • Erich Vieth says:

      Tim: I can't in good conscience limit criticism to only Republicans regarding wasteful spending Why didn't Obama bring the troops home from Afghanistan as he promised he would? That would be saving us $2B per week. Where's his Congressional authority for starting our third simultaneous war? I'll be there plenty of pork and waste in the most recent budget for which we can blame Democrats.

  8. Niklaus Pfirsig says:


    There is a major distinction between civil service employees and the elected or appointed office-holders.

    I've long held the belief that professional politician are experts in self-promotion and little else. They are skilled in selling or marketing themselves to win election to public office, but often are completely lacking in the skills needed to execute the tasks required by the office, so they surround themselves with consultants and appointees who often have a vested conflict of interest.

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