03.02.11

The Government Programs Both Democrats and Republicans Hate

Which programs were so bad that both parties could set aside their differences and agree to slash? Eight projects, from election assistance grants to Even Start, got the ax—but many more must be cut, writes Eve Conant.

What are the worst government programs in Washington? The real stinkeroos? The absolutely indefensible stuff?

We now have an answer.

They are the programs that both President Obama and the Republicans agreed to abolish to get a two-week budget deal that delays the possibility of a government shutdown.

There are, count ’em, eight such dogs. Which raises the question: If these programs are so unnecessary, why were taxpayers being forced to spend millions on them until now?

The programs include hard-to-argue cuts such as $75 million in election assistance grants that states simply failed to use, and $650 million for a one-time, non-recurring Federal Highways Administration program.

Then there’s a $29 million Broadband Direct Loan Subsidy, tucked into the Agriculture Department budget, which was found to be redundant with not just one but several federal programs. Agriculture’s inspector general uncovered abuses and inconsistencies in the program and found that it didn’t focus on the rural communities it was meant to target. And get this: According to the IG, some of the money went to provide high-speed Internet service to communities where the majority of residents already had it. The problems had persisted for years. Your government at work.

Eight down. How many to go? How many other failed yet funded projects might still be out there?

Four of the programs are in the Education Department, a favorite conservative target. The $64 million LEAP project doesn’t need more funding because it accomplished its goal of encouraging states to establish need-based student grant programs. The $250 million Striving Readers program was found to be redundant. And three national evaluations concluded that the $66 million Even Start program gave participants no greater literacy gains than those who didn’t take part. Yet another clunker: The $88 million Smaller Learning Communities program failed to provide any evidence that creating smaller learning communities in high schools made a whit of difference in academic achievement.

Fine; eight down. How many to go? How many other failed yet funded projects might still be out there?

Brian Reidl, a lead budget analyst with the conservative Heritage Foundation, says dozens if not hundreds of programs in the Education Department and elsewhere are not serving target populations and should go the way of this first batch. “Those eight? Those are the tip of the iceberg.” The fact that so few have been fully cut underscores just “how difficult it is to get rid of even the most wasteful programs. They are fiercely defended by their recipients and by members of Congress. We fail to eliminate programs that failed repeated audits.”

There’s no shortage of targets. The Government Accountability Office on Tuesday identified hundreds of overlapping government offices and programs that should get merged or get the ax. On Wednesday, Jeff Zients, the Office of Management and Budget’s deputy director for management, told reporters the White House plans to “reduce its real-estate footprint and save money” with a potential fire sale of some 14,000 unneeded federal properties across the country costing $20 billion a year.

The easy cuts are over, and amount to small change. Now the hard part begins.

Eve Conant is a Newsweek staff reporter covering immigration, politics, social and culture issues.