Going 'Page by Page, Line by Line' Through the Budget

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The House Committee on Energy and Commerce’s Subcommittee on Oversight and Investigations held a hearing yesterday on President Obama’s pledge to go “page by page, line by line” through the federal budget to eliminate programs “we don’t need.” I testified with an ideologically diverse group of budget experts.

My testimony can be read here, but the following are the key points:

  • Assuming that OMB did conduct a line by line review of the federal budget, the president’s first budget proposal implied that he believed that 99.53 percent of the federal government was definitely needed. Subsequent recommendations for savings released with the president’s annual budget proposals in 2010 and 2011have offered a similarly insignificant offering of spending cuts.
  • The president’s list of savings created an aura of thoroughness because it targeted some obscure programs. For example, the proposed savings included terminating tiny programs like the Christopher Columbus Fellowship Foundation ($1 million) and the Javits Gifted and Talented Education Program ($7 million).
  • My experiences as an Indiana state budget official taught me that political leaders are good at generating sound bites designed to make taxpayers believe that their interests come first. In reality, taxpayer interests usually end up taking a back seat to the interests of select individuals or groups.
  • Cato has conducted its own page by page, line by line review of the federal budget and posted the results on our website, www.DownsizingGovernment.org.
  • Policymakers need to do more than simply pledge to “eliminate waste, fraud, and abuse” in government programs. It’s time to cut “meat”– not just “fat.” If President Obama isn’t serious about terminating unneeded federal programs, then it’s up to Congress to do the job for him.

Had I to do over, I would have put more emphasis on that last sentence in my oral testimony. The “liberal” representative, Scott Lilly from the Center for American Progress, and “centrist” budget guru, Stan Collender, did the best job of pointing out that it’s Congress that needs to be doing the “page by page, line by line” review of the federal budget.

Much of the hearing consisted of Republicans and Democrats trying to score political points on each other. That’s just the way it is and it’ll never change, which is another reason why the American people should reconsider placing so much power and control over our lives in the hands of a select group of fallible human beings.