In a Savings Shocker, the Government Discovers That Paper Has Two Sides
Front-and-Back Copies, Other Wonders Help Agencies Save $102 Million -- .006% of Deficit
WASHINGTON -- With the budget deficit soaring toward $2 trillion, the Department of Justice has figured out how to play its part: double-sided photocopying.
Three months ago, President Barack Obama ordered his cabinet secretaries to find $100 million in budget cuts for the current fiscal year to emphasize the point that he, too, was serious about belt-tightening. They responded with $102 million. That is 0.006% of the estimated federal deficit.
The list of 77 spending cuts, which the White House is calling "the $100 million savings challenge," reflects the vastness of government -- and its vast inefficiency. Hundreds of millions of dollars in savings were found simply by casting around for areas to trim.
Still, the reductions barely scratch the surface. "Some of these cuts are so small they would be a rounding error of a rounding error in the federal budget," said Brian Riedl, a federal budget expert at the conservative Heritage Foundation. They also show how "unbelievably outdated" the government is, he said.
"I mean, emailing around the daily press clips instead of printing them out and distributing them? That should not have been necessitated by a presidential order."
The Air Force has proposed replacing its specially formulated jet fuel with commercial aviation fuel, which it will top up with some military additives. That will save nearly $52 million next year, when the program begins.
The Office of Thrift Supervision, a division of the Treasury, identified unused phone lines costing $320,000.
By increasing the number of soldiers traveling on each airplane chartered for rest-and-relaxation leave, the Army will save $18 million in the next few months. The Navy will save $5 million a year by deleting inactive Internet accounts to configure their computer networks more cheaply.
Both Homeland Security and the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration have pledged to take the same step that has sent the newspaper industry into a tailspin: They will start getting their news online free, rather than renew their subscriptions. Homeland Security will save $47,160, or 0.0000026% of the deficit.
The Coast Guard realized that maintenance schedules for its 1,800 small boats assumed they were for recreational use such as water-skiing or bass-fishing. By adjusting maintenance schedules to reflect what the Coast Guard actually does, the agency discovered it can save $2 million a year.
The Federal Emergency Management Agency is going to save $3.8 million by refurbishing and reusing or selling its emergency trailers -- like the ones provided to people displaced by hurricanes -- instead of ditching them.
Only one cabinet office proposed actually eliminating a program. The Department of Labor says it will disband the nearly 40-year-old Employment Standards Administration. With it goes an assistant secretary of labor, two deputy assistants and an administrative office.
A Labor Department official downplayed the move. The ESA's main activities (enforcing workplace regulation and workers' rights rules) are alive and well, the official said. They will just have a few less bosses to report to.
Besides, the bureau's office in Boulder City, Nev., was looking to upgrade an old aircraft of its own. So it got Boise's hand-me-down Beechcraft.
White House budget office spokesman Ken Baer said no one is suggesting the $100-million exercise will close the budget gap. The cost-cutting effort wasn't a one-off program. This summer, the budget office told each cabinet department to devise a 2011 budget with zero growth, and another with a 5% cut. Before the 2011 budget proposal comes out early next year, the budget office will again go scouting for cost cuts and inefficiencies.
On Wednesday, the White House budget office will release three sets of guides to press federal agencies to realize $40 billion in savings through procurement and contract-policy changes.
"The fact that it may seem that there's a lot of savings that is easily attainable proves a point," he said. "There's a lot of change in Washington that has to happen to make sure taxpayer dollars are used effectively and efficiently."
Republicans weren't impressed. If the administration produces $100 million in savings every 98 days for the rest of Mr. Obama's term, the savings will total $1.5 billion, or three days of interest on the federal debt, said Don Stewart, spokesman for Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell.
"These savings tends to be in thousands, tens of thousands and millions," said Rep. Paul Ryan of Wisconsin, the ranking Republican on the House Budget Committee. "Our fiscal challenges are in the thousands of billions."
Write to Jonathan Weisman at firstname.lastname@example.org