While the nation was distracted by the political theater around immigration before the July 4 recess, the Senate cast a critical vote killing a very modest attempt offered by President Trump to rein in spending. If Trump plays his cards right, this will not be the end of a fight but its start.
The package in dispute was a $15 billion rescission or spending cut package the president presented to Congress in May. Very little of Trump’s package were true cuts. Only about $1 billion in outlays would be reduced according to the Congressional Budget Office. The rest the package pulled back unspent funds for not-so-urgent federal priorities like promoting chocolate covered peanuts and maintaining idle advanced technology loan programs.
OMB Director Mick Mulvaney chastised Congress for refusing to back even meager cuts. Mulvaney said, "The American people should be asking their representatives in Washington one simple question: If they cannot pass good-government legislation to recapture unnecessary funds, how can we ever expect them to address Washington’s staggering debt and deficit problem?"
Mulvaney is right. Rather than stand down, Trump should stay on offense and send even more cuts to Congress. There is no shortage of potential savings in today’s bloated federal budget.
Consider what OpenTheBooks.com exposed in a recent report about federal grants entitled "Where’s the Pork?":
- Tai Chi for the Elderly – Nearly $700,000 from the Department of Health and Human Services funded tai chi classes at a center for the elderly in Boston.
- Space Racers: An Animated Children’s Cartoon – $2.5 million in NASA funding supported the production of two seasons of a children’s cartoon series about galactic adventures.
- Sex Ed for Prostitutes in California – $1.5 million funded "safer sex and needle" education for prostitutes in California even though prostitution is illegal in the state.
Trump could also look to duplication for a source of savings. He could start by compiling fresh cuts from two areas – duplication and federal grants.
In 2010, the Senate unanimously accepted (94-0) an amendment
I offered to the debt limit increase requiring the Government Accountability Office to produce an annual list of duplicative federal programs. Every senator – Democrat and Republican – supported this effort including the two Republican senators, Richard Burr, R-N.C., and Susan Collins, R-Maine, who voted against Trump’s rescissions package.
GAO itself claims it has helped save $178 billion through its reports since 2011 while we estimate the reports identified $100 billion in annual waste.
Trump could draw from this year’s GAO list
and send new cuts to Congress or use the bully pulpit to demand congressional action. For instance, GAO found tremendous fragmentation among 163 federal STEM education programs that are spread across 13 different agencies at a cost of $2.9 billion.
Breaking through the noise and controversies of the day with a message of fiscal stewardship is difficult but if anyone can do it, Trump can. Our fight against earmarks during the Bush years provides a useful tactical lesson.
We learned that taking on individual targets like the Bridge to Nowhere can be a more productive strategy than proposing across the board cuts or offering multiple cuts at once. Our initial vote to eliminate funding for the bridge failed 82-15 but we won in the court of public opinion. Congress imposed an earmark moratorium in 2010. While the ban is imperfect it’s still in place eight years later. Trump may find that picking more targeted fights can turn the tide and produce big savings.
Neither former Presidents Barack Obama nor George W. Bush offered any rescissions packages, so Trump’s attempt at this method should be welcomed. Former President Ronald Reagan cut spending by $15 billion through 133 separate rescissions in 1981 and cut another $16 billion in 1986 through 245 separate cuts.
But the process doesn’t matter as much as the product and end result. Voters want to see fiscal sanity in Washington. Trump should use every tool at his disposal – from Twitter to rescissions – to change the trajectory on spending.