How Budget's Hidden Fat Eludes Knife On The Political Scene

February 12, 1994|By Nelson Schwartz | Nelson Schwartz,Contributing Writer

WASHINGTON -- Despite all the recent talk about hard choices and painful cuts coming from Washington, there's still plenty of fat tucked away in the president's new budget.

Take the $25 million in government subsidies for commercial airlines that fly to what Washington says are out-of-the-way places -- such as Cape Cod and Bar Harbor, both prime New England vacation spots. Or the $75 million from the Agriculture Department to help profitable companies advertise overseas. Beneficiaries of this largess have included McDonald's, Campbell Soup Co. and Ocean Spray Cranberries Inc.

Then there's the National Helium Reserve. The administration wants $30 million for this obscure program, a throwback to the time after World War I when German zeppelins threatened the nation's security and the government decided it desperately needed helium.

It's all in there. Even a few million dollars more for Steamtown, the new National Park Service exhibit devoted to the age of rail -- which happens to lie in the district of a powerful Pennsylvania congressman.

Last week, President Clinton proclaimed that his blueprint was "the toughest budget on spending cuts that Congress has yet seen." Alice M. Rivlin, the deputy budget director, agreed that the budget was "tough," adding, "We're cutting a lot of hard stuff."

Indeed they are. This year's request for the Health and Human Services program that provides money for the poor to heat their homes was slashed by $700 million. Subsidies for mass transit were also cut back. As a result, subway and bus fares in many cities could rise.

The survival of wasteful spending, despite years of attacks from critics, demonstrates one reason the federal budget deficit is so difficult to cut -- and why real change is a rare commodity in the nation's capital, regardless of which party is in charge.

But why do projects like Steamtown and the helium reserve keep coming back?

Powerful members of Congress from both sides of the aisle publicly defend these programs as important to their communities and the nation. Among them are Democratic Rep. Bill Sarpalius, whose Texas district includes the helium reserve. And Rep. Joseph M. McDade, the Scranton, Pa., congressman who serves as the ranking Republican on the House Appropriations Committee, and whose position helps ensure that cash is doled out for Steamtown in his district.

Even Ms. Rivlin conceded in a Capitol Hill hearing last week that the helium program stays alive "for some mysterious political reasons."

To Rep. Christopher C. Cox, a California Republican who has targeted the helium reserves for elimination, the reasons aren't so mysterious. At the helium reserve, outside Amarillo, Texas, Mr. Cox notes, "you can take a tour and see the dog-and-pony show about why a government-run helium industry is necessary for the survival of late 20th-century civilization."

David Williams, of Citizens Against Government Waste, a private watchdog group, this week described the helium project as a "classic example of an outdated program where government ignorance has been the rule and millions have been thrown out. There is absolutely no need for the helium reserve, whatsoever."

Mr. Sarpalius, the leading congressional backer of the helium reserve, argues that the project saves money by allowing the National Aeronautics and Space Administration and the Defense Department, which both use helium, to obtain the inert gas at a discount.

Defenders of projects like Steamtown often contend that they are tiny components of a $1.5 trillion budget and, compared with huge programs like Medicare and Social Security, have little real impact on the deficit.

But what about the Agriculture Department's $1 billion export-enhancement program? That effort began in 1985 to help American grain exporters compete with heavily subsidized foreign competitors. The $1 billion is nearly double the budget of the USDA's Food Safety and Inspection Service, which is supposed to ensure that the nation's food is safe.

Most of the recipients are huge, profitable commodity companies rather than individual farmers, says a top department official who insisted on anonymity.

He defended the program, however, arguing that it provides a valuable service in helping farm exports remain competitive. On the other hand, the USDA official acknowledges that its market-promotion program for overseas advertising was "something I'd toss onto the table, if you're looking for ways to cut waste and save money."

For the new fiscal year, the president's budget would give that project $75 million, 25 percent less than last year and far below the $200 million handed out in 1990.

"We're taking steps to restructure the program so it benefits smaller companies who are trying to break into new markets," says Steve Kinsella, a spokesman for Agriculture Secretary Mike Espy.

The Federal Aviation Administration is also trying to reform its subsidized air service program. Although some of the more obvious targets of criticism have been eliminated, the government is still paying for flights to Hyannis on Cape Cod. The program dates from the 1970s, when airlines were deregulated and Congress worried that some distant markets would be neglected by airlines. Closer to home, there's even subsidized travel to Trenton, N.J., from Baltimore-Washington International Airport, even though Trenton is serviced by another government subsidized program, Amtrak.

Although the budget process has barely begun, staff members from these agencies and affected constituents will soon begin their annual treks to Capitol Hill in a bid to justify their programs.

Like the robots in a science fiction novel, says Mr. Cox, "the first goal of these programs is to stay alive."

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