WASHINGTON — As President Barack Obama pushed his new $100 million campaign to cut government spending last week, the House of Representatives authorized $50 million to help protect cranes, snow leopards, wild African dogs and other endangered species.
Critics called last week's votes symbols of Democratic budget hypocrisy.
"With federal spending, bank failures and home foreclosures reaching historic levels," asked Rep. Rob Bishop, R-Utah, "is it really appropriate to spend our constituents' hard-earned money to conserve an African wild dog, an Ethiopian wolf or a Borneo bay cat?"
Sure, said Rep. Jay Inslee, D-Wash. He called the effort "a very, very modest step to try to preserve these endangered species that, in fact, are threatened and are listed on international lists."
The House overwhelmingly passed "The Great Cats and Rare Canids Act" and the "Crane Conservation Act." Each would each authorize $5 million annually from fiscal 2010 to 2014 to help preserve the species.
The debate captured in miniature the struggle that Obama faces as he tries to trim anything in the federal budget. Every line, it seems, has a congressional champion and an army of special interests; for instance, more than 80 conservation, sportsmen and hunting organizations backed the cats act.
Obama launched his budget-paring effort when he told his Cabinet last week to find $100 million in savings — less than one-tenth of 1 percent of his $3.55 trillion budget, but, as he said in effect, you've gotta start somewhere — and on Friday he urged House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., to push pay-as-you-go laws to restrain spending.
Saturday, in his weekly radio and Internet address, the president vowed, "We will continue going through the budget line by line, and we'll identify more than 100 programs that will be cut or eliminated."
He faces a road full of detours and potholes.
Congress is likely to pass a fiscal 2010 budget blueprint later this week that increases nondefense discretionary spending, or the popular programs for which lawmakers can adjust spending easily, by at least 7 percent, one of the biggest single-year increases since the 1960s. Obama, citing the national economic emergency, wants a 10.1 percent increase next year.
Recent history suggests that even with strong mandates, cutting spending is difficult.
Two months after President Ronald Reagan took office in 1981, he issued a charge almost identical to that of Obama: "Any program that represents a waste of their money — a theft from their pocketbooks — must have that waste eliminated or the program must go — by executive order where possible; by congressional action where necessary."
He sought to ax dozens of programs and tried to move the Education and Energy departments out of the Cabinet. That didn't happen, and very few programs were eliminated.
Obama's challenge is convincing lawmakers that his cuts are more than symbolic and therefore they have to swallow some tough ones. To cut $100 million out of a $3.55 trillion budget isn't much, analysts said. Obama himself called it "a drop in the bucket."
"It's a symbol to show he's serious," said Marc Goldwein, the policy director of the nonpartisan Committee for a Responsible Federal Budget.
He lauded Obama's efforts to implement pay-as-you-go and some other policies, but to achieve bigger savings, Goldwein said, "He needs to go further and offer serious cuts in spending, and we haven't seen that yet."
Meanwhile, Congress is likely to spend the year waging a series of firefights over cherished programs.
The wildlife bills would expand a program that helps protect tigers, rhinos, great apes and marine turtles to include 15 threatened wild cat and canine species with a separate $25 million fund. The crane bill is aimed at protecting 11 endangered species of cranes, and would set up a similar $25 million fund.
Most of the species live outside the United States, but supporters argue that the new money is similar to foreign aid and helps protect forests and other resources.
The crane act, said Rep. Tammy Baldwin, D-Wis., would allow experts in the United States "to bring people and governments around the world together to protect ecosystems, develop adequate habitats and encourage overall good will."
Rep. Louie Gohmert, R-Texas, had a different view.
Speaking of the cat bill, he said, "We are going to borrow more money from the Chinese to possibly give them money back. . . . There is no assurance that if we did that we wouldn't end up with moo goo dog pan or moo goo cat pan. There is no way to assure that money will not be wasted when it's sent to foreign countries."
If Congress passes its budget outline later this week as expected, it then will begin months of debates about specific projects like this, featuring debates very much like this one.
It appears, Goldwein said, that there could be a common theme to the arguments:
"When you talk about savings, little numbers are big," he said. "But when you talk about spending, little numbers are little."
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