It’s tempting to think that the federal budget is overrun with obvious waste, be it “corporate welfare” or clearly silly subsidies for useless activities. William Proxmire, a Democratic senator from Wisconsin, made a hobby of highlighting projects he thought silly or wasteful by awarding them a “Golden Fleece Award.” Tom Coburn has picked up the torch with his annual “Wastebook,” highlighting programs that he judges obviously worthy of cutting.
This year’s report came out during the height of election season and escaped some attention because of that, but Coburn, a major figure in “fiscal cliff” negotiations, has been touting it again as an obvious source of cuts. And at face value, it sure seems like one. The items total $18 billion: not a lot, but a reasonable-sized dent, and an easy spending component to add to a deficit deal. Taken over a decade, $180 billion could be an important part of a $4 trillion debt deal.
But upon closer inspection, the cuts aren’t as obvious. Of the 100 items in Coburn’s Wastebook, the first 10 amount to 93.44 percent of the total cost savings. The top three amount to over 70 percent. By contrast, the last 50 items — for the most part, small studies and grants issued by executive agencies autonomously, rather than appropriated by Congress — amount to 0.06 percent of total savings, or $11.91 million. That’s chump change in the context of the federal budget.