Congress

Items, large and small, that can’t be cut from the federal budget

Planned Parenthood Federation of America President Cecile Richards is sworn in on Capitol Hill in Washington, Tuesday, Sept. 29, 2015, prior to testifying before the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee hearing on "Planned Parenthood's Taxpayer Funding."
Planned Parenthood Federation of America President Cecile Richards is sworn in on Capitol Hill in Washington, Tuesday, Sept. 29, 2015, prior to testifying before the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee hearing on "Planned Parenthood's Taxpayer Funding." AP

Taxes change all the time, up and down. But as Washington is learning anew this week as it debates federal financing for Planned Parenthood, some spending in the federal budget often appears to be politically untouchable.

Here are four examples:

Planned Parenthood

Planned Parenthood, a nonprofit organization that provides reproductive and women’s health care, this week escaped a threat to its federal dollars, most of which are used to provide health care for the poor.

Many Republicans dislike its abortion services, though Planned Parenthood points out that abortion amounts to only a small percentage of everything it does. It receives no federal funds toward those services, as federal law mandates, except in certain instances such as rape or a threat to the life of the patient.

Some Republicans accused the organization of selling fetal tissue for profit after a series of sting videos that showed officials at the organization discussing the transfer of fetal tissue for scientific research. Planned Parenthood says its fetal tissue research complies with federal and state statutes, and that it accepts compensation below costs. At least one of the videos has been shown to contain some stock footage that never happened at Planned Parenthood.

Planned Parenthood has 700 health centers in the United States with 2.7 million women and men visiting annually, according to its website.

There are 700 health centers in the United States with 2.7 million women and men visiting annually, according to Planned Parenthood’s website.

Although the values issues surrounding abortion are large, the sum of money in question is small to the United States, said Bob Bixby, the executive director of the Concord Coalition, a nonprofit that focuses on fiscal issues.

“Money isn’t line-itemed in the budget for a particular organization. It runs through federal agencies that would contract with groups like Planned Parenthood,” he said. “There are a lot of intricacies, which is what makes it a difficult proposition to shut down the government over one very, very small item.”

PBS and NPR

Many Republicans wanted to cut the federal funding of PBS and NPR in 2012 after presidential candidate Mitt Romney promised in a presidential debate to stop subsidizing PBS.

Republicans felt NPR reported the news with a liberal spin and wanted to pull its federal funding, said Stan Collender, the executive vice president of Qorvis MSLGROUP, a Washington-based communications firm.

The issue wouldn’t have come up if NPR was seen as conservative, he said.

Republicans argued that the radio and television stations made enough money on their own, without federal money. In 2014, NPR had $354.9 million in total assets, according to its annual report. PBS had $290.7 million in total assets.

Democrats pointed out that cutting spending to public media, which received only $445 million from the federal government, would do almost nothing to lower deficits.

Social Security

The largest mandatory spending program in the federal budget is both an ideological hot button topic and a logistically complex giant.

“It is the third rail of American politics; people always say touch it and you’re dead,” Bixby said, referring to the electrified third rail of subway systems. “It’s such a popular program it’s difficult to change.”

No possible compromise almost automatically means you’re not going to get anything done.

Communications executive Stan Collender

President George W. Bush named changes to Social Security his top priority after his re-election in 2004. He got nowhere.

Roughly 59 million people received Social Security in August, according to the Social Security Administration’s latest data. The overwhelming majority, 81.9 percent of beneficiaries, collected an average of $1,269 a month for old-age and survivors insurance and the other 18.1 percent collected an average of $1,022 a month for disability insurance.

A slim 11 percent of respondents answered that they were very satisfied with the Social Security and Medicare programs, according to a January 2015 Gallup poll.

F-35

The F-35 Joint Strike Fighter, the most expensive U.S. weapons system ever made, has been contested for years because of its mounting costs as technical difficulties persisted.

As plans fell further behind schedule and costs grow to the hundreds of billions of dollars, early critics such as Republican Sen. John McCain from Arizona pushed to end funding.

Proponents such as Republican Rep. Kay Granger from Texas wanted to keep the program – and the jobs in her district at Lockheed Martin related to building the jets.

In July, the Marines declared the first F-35 combat ready, five years later than planned because of problems with the jet’s complicated systems, according to the Fort Worth Star Telegram.

The budget request from the Department of Defense for fiscal 2016 shows plans to increase orders to build 57 F-35s.

The total program costs including research, development, testing and evaluation, a total of $391 billion, said Joe DellaVedova, the public affairs director of F-35 Lightning II. After the program was restructured in 2010, the program has been on budget and on schedule with costs going down as quantities increase, he said.

Overall, the more an issue begins to appear as a problem that has only two solutions, the harder it will be to see results, said Collender, the communications expert.

“When it’s not clear that there’s a compromise that’s possible, for most of these members it’s a pass-fail kind of question,” Collender said. “No possible compromise almost automatically means you’re not going to get anything done.”

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