WASHINGTON — Like an inside-the-Beltway version of "American Idol," Republicans in the House of Representatives are taking the federal budget to the people, letting popular online votes determine which taxpayer-funded programs in Washington ought to get the ax.
Majority Leader Eric Cantor of Virginia developed YouCut in the last Congress, but it didn't get too far in the Democratic-controlled House. This year, with the GOP in charge, things are different.
Different programs will be featured on the website each week. The ones that get the most votes would go before lawmakers.
They aren't likely to get as far in the Senate, though, which Democrats still control.
The online tool is being taken over this year by a trio of freshmen: Reps. Renee Ellmers of North Carolina, Mick Mulvaney of South Carolina and Austin Scott of Georgia.
"I just think the program is beautiful," Ellmers said. "The beauty of it is that the American people are involved. People are coming up to us and saying, 'We're spending millions of dollars on A, B and C. Why are we doing that?' "
Each week for the next 19 weeks, three programs will be submitted for website visitors to vote on. A House freshman then will file legislation to kill the program that voters selected, a bill that could be tracked through the website. Web visitors can help by suggesting programs to get rid of as well, Mulvaney said.
"There's no way you can be here in Washington and know where all the money goes," Mulvaney said.
Ellmers submitted this week's choices: cutting the Ambassadors Fund for Cultural Preservation, ending U.S. contributions to the United Nations Population Fund or stopping U.S. contributions to the Asian Development Fund.
You decide, and she'll submit the program in a bill.
"If we can cut back on the waste, we're doing good," Ellmers said.
Some of the government agencies didn't know their programs were in the contest.
"We think this is a great program," Rick Ruth, senior adviser in the Bureau of Education and Cultural Affairs, said of the State Department's Ambassadors Fund for Cultural Preservation. The 10-year-old program offers grants to foreign projects such as restoring historic cemeteries hit by bombing in Bosnia and patching mosques in Afghanistan.
Ruth said the program showed the United States' respect for other countries' histories and put America in a positive light. The GOP predicts a savings of $60 million in the next decade by cutting the program, but the fund doesn't receive an annual appropriation so it's unclear how much would be saved.
"It's very, very cost-effective," Ruth said. "I believe the percentage of the State Department budget dedicated to this program is 69/1000ths of a percent."
The savings for Ellmers' other two potential terminations would nearly $400 million each over the next decade. It's a pittance in the overall budget, but Republicans say the cuts have to start somewhere.
"We understand that pennies make dollars and that every cut counts," Scott said.
Steve Ellis, the vice president of the nonpartisan Taxpayers for Common Sense in Washington, a budget watchdog group, said the YouCut program didn't cut very deeply but it at least engaged the public.
"We've got a $1.65 trillion budget deficit this year, so we've got to cut a lot," Ellis said. "We're going to have to look at tax revenue and we're going to have to look at entitlements. ... But if this gets people more interested in the budget and what happens in Washington, that's great as a civics exercise."
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