Lawmakers Jockey to Cut the Budget at Someone Else’s Expense

Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid
Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, a Democrat from Nevada. Photographer: Andrew Harrer/Bloomberg

March 8 (Bloomberg) -- U.S. Representative Jim Jordan, an Ohio Republican, wants to eliminate funding for Amtrak, which may be an easy call for him because the passenger rail system doesn’t serve his district.

Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, a Nevada Democrat, proposes rescinding tax breaks for the oil industry, which overwhelmingly supports his Republican colleagues. Florida Republican Allen West wants to slash federal spending overall, though not for the beach-erosion projects important to his West Palm Beach district.

Congress is awash in proposals to cut the federal budget, which often translates to trying to cut someone else’s program even as lawmakers talk tough about difficult decisions and shared sacrifice.

“The folks in Iowa think urban mass transit grants are worthy of significant reductions, and people on the New York subway think farm price supports could be lowered,” said former Congressional Budget Office Director Robert Reischauer. “We’re not going to get very far in our effort to reduce spending unless everybody is willing to tighten the belt at least one notch.”

How to distribute budget reductions among different groups and regions of the U.S. will be a major issue in this year’s budget battles, beginning with the fight over funding the government for the rest of this fiscal year. Republicans insist on cutting $50 billion more through Sept. 30 than Democrats propose, and the Senate will take test votes on each side’s plan as soon as today.

Conflicting Pressure

Lawmakers are under conflicting pressure to shrink the deficit yet preserve their constituents’ favorite programs, so the political sweet spot for many is to cut items irrelevant to their districts, said Reischauer, now president of the Urban Institute, a Washington-based public policy group.

The aim for many, Reischauer said, is to “achieve the broad goal of spending reduction without the pain of taking something away from the voters in their district.”

The Republican-backed budget bill the House approved Feb. 19 would cut $61 billion in spending across the country, with some of the deepest reductions for programs supported by Democrats. Among them: grants for mass-transit systems and development programs important to cities, heating subsidies important to the Northeast, and aid to National Public Radio and the National Endowment for the Arts.

The bill leaves untouched the Essential Air Service, which subsidizes flights to rural areas at a cost that can reach thousands of dollars per passenger.

‘Shared Sacrifice’

“Clearly programs that were favored by Democrats received deeper cuts than programs that were favored by Republicans,” said Representative Steve LaTourette of Ohio, a member of a group of self-described moderate Republicans known as the Tuesday Group. “If we’re going to have shared sacrifice, everybody should be in the game.”

Democrats are simultaneously trying to foist cuts onto Republicans. One target is farm payments, with Representative Anthony Weiner pushing to cut mohair subsidies for goat farmers - not a constituency of his New York City district.

President Barack Obama and congressional Democrats such as Reid want to rescind $44 billion in tax breaks for the oil and gas industry, which during the last two years gave almost four times as much in campaign contributions to Republicans as Democrats in Congress. New Hampshire Democratic Senator Jeanne Shaheen wants to end tax breaks for hard-rock mining companies, which would have little effect on her home state.

Beach Erosion

Parochialism sometimes trumps party, as Georgia Republican Paul Broun found when he tried to amend the House bill to eliminate funding for Army Corps of Engineers projects aimed at fixing eroded beaches.

Critics noted his Athens-area district is landlocked, and Republicans and Democrats alike from coastal areas lined up against the plan. Among them was West, a freshman backed by the Tea Party who criticized federal spending in a speech to the Conservative Political Action Conference last month in Washington.

“I would be damn stupid to cut beach programs in the state of Florida,” West said. “What is Florida without beaches? People don’t go down there for trees.”

Likewise, House Democrats and Republicans from the West joined to kill Ohio Democrat Marcy Kaptur’s bid to slash money for a program that compensates mostly western states for the tax-exempt status of federal land within their borders.

‘Welfare’ to the West

Kaptur called the program “welfare payments to the West.”

Some lawmakers who talk of cutting spending are less specific when asked what could be pared from their own districts. “I don’t know -- you tell me,” said West.

Jordan said his push for cuts totaling more than the $61 billion in the House approved would affect many programs in his district.

Broun pointed to his agreement to join his party in ending pet projects known as earmarks.

Senator Tom Coburn, an Oklahoma Republican, said “everybody has to take some pain” to solve the government’s budget problems.

“The first way to have some legitimacy is to talk about your own state -- what is not working well, what is wasteful, what is not accomplishing a greater good for the country,” Coburn said.

To contact the reporter on this story: Brian Faler in Washington at

To contact the editor responsible for this story: Mark Silva at