WASHINGTON — Rep. Michele Bachmann has outlined an estimated $423 billion in potential federal budget cuts that, on the surface, seem simple, but in practice serve as an object lesson in how tough it’ll be for Congress to make any meaningful budget cuts over the next few years.
Bachmann’s plan outlined Monday contains several cuts that have been on the conservative docket for years: Eliminating all or most of the Education Department, slashing farm subsidies, privatizing several government agencies and cutting foreign aid.
It’s a little too early to assess the potential impact of her proposal, as many details have yet to be disclosed and members we talked with hadn’t reviewed it yet. A few Democrats and Republicans have outlined spending cut proposals, and more are expected (including official party-backed plans) following President Obama’s budget presentation in February. Bachmann’s office said her move was simply one to stimulate discussion, and one she hopes other members will emulate.
But setting aside the arguments about whether or not any or all of these cuts are good policy (not something I’m going into in this article), the politics of passing something like this are immensely challenging because every single cut can be traced directly back to a spending beneficiary who stands to specifically lose out if the cut gets passed.
What it means, in simple terms, is that to make serious cuts to the federal budget overall, each lawmaker will have to swallow cuts to their district directly.
Take, for example, two relatively small cuts Bachmann would make to the transportation budget.
The first, eliminating the Essential Air Service Program, could result in the decline in or elimination of three Delta Airlines routes between Minneapolis St. Paul International Airport (MSP) and small airports in Chisholm-Hibbing, International Falls and Thief River Falls. A combined $5.5 million in federal dollars guarantees air service for two years and reduces airfares on those routes.
EAS was a program developed in the late 1970s to ensure that rural communities (more than 75 miles from a larger airport) had affordable access air service. About half the money goes to Alaska (in place of the roads that simply can’t be built between many towns there), while the rest goes to rural communities like the three in Minnesota.
MSP is the hub airport for EAS routes to and from Fort Dodge, Iowa; Mason City, Iowa; Escanaba, Mich.; Iron Mountain, Mich.; Devils Lake, N.D.; Jamestown, N.D.; and Watertown, S.D.
Mesaba Airlines, an Eagan-based subsidiary of Pinnacle Corp. that operates as Delta Connection, would see several cuts to routes nationally. A Delta spokesman did not return calls seeking comment, but Mesaba and Pinnacle officials said (and EAS records show) the company would lose tens of millions of dollars from a cut of that magnitude.
Privatizing Amtrak, an idea that comes up every now and then, could affect rail service on the Empire Builder line should a private firm not deem it viable. As is, the Empire Builder that runs from Chicago through the Twin Cities and west to the Pacific isn’t a money-maker, so cuts would be inevitable.
Those cuts could hit stations with existing service in Winona, Red Wing, the Twin Cities, St. Cloud, Staples, Detroit Lakes and just-across-the-border stations in La Crosse, Wis.; Fargo and Grand Forks, N.D. Amtrak also reaches dozens of other towns via connecting bus services, which could also be affected.
And those two cuts alone show the most obvious political difficulty: Literally every Minnesota congressional district (including her own) would see a service cut under Bachmann’s plan, and that’s only looking at the direct impact of two relatively small-impact cuts.
The NIMBY dilemma
The dilemma for Republicans, whose takeover of the House can be traced directly back to promises to rein in spending, is that they’ll have to not just support cuts but actually propose them and be first to vote in favor of them. That’s because spending bills are required to start in the House, which the GOP holds control over.
Freshman Republican Chip Cravaack said he’s mindful of the need for cuts generally, noting that the U.S. national debt recently passed the $14 trillion mark.
“The bottom line is, we just don’t have the money,” he said. “We have to do the right thing, make the right decisions for the right reasons for our children and our grandchildren. That’s why I came to Congress.”
Cravaack, a former airline pilot with Northwest (since bought by Delta) and whose district includes two of those airports, said late Monday he’d just heard about Bachmann’s plan less than a minute before I asked him about it. As such, he said he’d have to look at it in depth before deciding to back or oppose it.
Rep. Erik Paulsen, in whose district Mesaba is based, didn’t endorse or reject Bachmann’s plan either. “Rep. Paulsen appreciates Rep. Bachmann’s efforts to continue the conversation on getting our fiscal House in order,” spokesman Tom Erickson said in a statement. “He’ll review Rep. Bachmann’s plan in the coming days to see how they, as well as other members of Congress, can work together to reduce government spending and institute policies that will create jobs for Minnesotans and all Americans.”
Specific proposals to cut large chunks of money have often had difficulty attracting much support.
Republican Rep. Paul Ryan, head of the House Budget Committee, released one such specific proposal in the 111th Congress directed at entitlement programs like Social Security. His cuts were so unpopular on the Hill that most GOP lawmakers distanced themselves from them. Democrats are still attacking any Republican who shows signs of coming close to supporting them – I got several such press releases on that subject just this week.
However, Republicans have lined Ryan up as the official State of the Union response speaker and in that response he’s expected to call for additional federal austerity measures. So it’s possible, reading into that a little, that GOP leaders have thawed to his ideas.
Bachmann’s office did not give specifics on many of her cuts, including whether agencies like the Federal Aviation Administration or Transportation Security Administration would be eliminated wholesale or reduced to a solely regulatory role. She also declined to discuss timelines – most bills have a six-month implementation window, though larger ones can be one year or more.
“This is a discussion draft for getting possible cuts on the table,” Bachmann spokesman Doug Sachtleben said. “We would look forward to working with the various committees of jurisdiction on the specifics each proposal and releasing details at that time.
Bachmann’s hope, Sachtleben said, is that other members will issue specific cut recommendations in the future, then use those plans as a jumping-off point for specific legislation.
“Everyone’s going to have to make sacrifices,” he said.
Update: Apologies for not posting this originally, but here’s a link to her specific proposals, along with monetary estimates. Given the lack of details on when cuts will be made and to what degree, I haven’t been able to independently verify those monetary estimates, so they’re only from Bachmann’s office at this point. -DW