Worry over hurricane costs aids reform bill

Supporters of bills that would make it easier to eliminate wasteful federal programs hope growing uneasiness with the deficit will give their efforts more momentum.

Congressional conservatives in particular are agitating for budget cuts to offset the costs of rebuilding the Gulf Coast, an effort that could cost more than $200 billion.

But even Republicans have been better at talking about reducing the size of government than doing it; domestic spending has increased under President Bush.

With $62 billion already appropriated for relief efforts in wake of Hurricane Katrina, however, “cutting out wasteful programs is taking on a whole new meaning,” said T.J. Crawford, press secretary for Rep. Jon Porter (R-Nev.).

Even without factoring in the new spending, the federal deficit is projected to be $331 billion in 2005, according to the Congressional Budget Office.

Porter is co-sponsor of a bill that would create a panel with the job of eliminating or reorganizing federal programs.

The seven-member commission would make recommendations to the president, who would pass them on to Congress for an up-or-down vote, thereby mimicking the current process for shuttering military bases.

Under another measure supported by Porter, federal agencies would “sunset” after 10 years unless Congress reaffirmed their role. Agencies that enforce regulations that protect public health, safety, civil rights and the environment would not be eligible for elimination.

The idea behind both measures is to shift the burden of proof from the critics who want to cut programs to the programs themselves.

“Katrina has sharpened everyone’s focus on spending the taxpayers’ dollars wisely,” Clay Johnson, the deputy director for management at the Office of Management and Budget (OMB), told a House panel reviewing the bills Tuesday.

“The taxpayers deserve a thoughtful, regular review of their government’s spending,” Johnson added.

He was testifying before the House Government Reform Federal Workforce and Agency Organization Subcommittee hearing on the two bills. Porter is the chairman of the subcommittee.

Crawford listed examples of potential waste: 19 federal substance-abuse prevention programs, 90 early-childhood-development programs, 86 teacher-training programs and 541 clean-air, water and waste programs — all spread over dozens of federal departments.

But while the goal of the bills is to make government more efficient, they could have the opposite effect, warned J. Robert Shull of OMB Watch, a group that tracks the agency.

“Forcing programs to divert their resources into proving the case for their continued existence means taking resources away from addressing the public’s needs,” Shull said in written testimony.

The two bills were part of the White House’s budget proposal, but they have hardly garnered priority status in Congress.

The House bills only have three sponsors: Porter, House Government Reform Committee Chairman Tom Davis (R-Va.) and Rep. Tom Brady (R-Texas).

Sen. Craig Thomas (R-Wyo.) has introduced similar bills in the Senate.

Crawford said Davis’s committee has not scheduled a markup of the measures and it is unclear where they sit on the majority’s agenda.

More attention has been given certainly to recent proposals to cut back on federal programs through more traditional means: appropriations and reconciliation.

The Republican Study Committee, a group of House conservatives, released “Operation Offset” last week, a proposal to trim spending by more than $800 billion over the next 10 years.

For now, House Republican leaders are distancing themselves from the proposals but instead are considering across-the-board cuts in federal spending.