Operation Offset: Best Way to Pay for Rebuilding the Gulf Coast?

In the grand debate over how exactly we're going to come up with the couple hundred billions of dollars to pay for post-Katrina rebuilding, one plan that's been taking a lot of heat is the Republican Study Committee's Operation Offset. The total presumed savings of making all the cuts in the plan would be about $100 billion dollars next year, projected to be around $950 billion over the next decade.

ThinkProgress.org offers an alternative plan that would cut $688 billion in unnecessary federal spending over five years, with $327 billion of that coming just from rolling back the 2001 and 2003 tax cuts for the wealthiest 1 percent of taxpayers. Perhaps if I were in that wealthiest 1 percent, I would feel differently, but the idea sounds good to me.

That said, even the liberalist of liberals must admit that Operation Offset isn't all bad. There is certainly plenty of wasteful government spending that we can eliminate without shedding any tears. Among the Operation Offset line items most worthy of implementation:

*Eliminate Funding for Penile Implants Under Medicare. Savings: None next year, but $8 million over 10 years. Call me heartless, but I think we can safely get rid of that little perk.

*Eliminate the Federal Anti-Drug Advertising. Savings: $122 million next year. Find me one person who was actually swayed by those egg-in-a-frying-pan "This Is Your Brain on Drugs" commercials and I might reconsider my position on this one.

*Charge Federal Employees for Parking. Savings: $140 million next year. Make 'em take the Metro like everyone else!

*Decline Member Pay Raise. Savings: $2 million next year. ($24 million over 10 years.) Note to members of Congress: You haven't earned that raise.

"Eliminating Corporate Welfare" is also a good idea in principle, but the line items under this heading don't seem to match the description -- a bunch of the proposed cuts target programs to encourage development of renewable energy technologies, from eliminating the Applied Research for Renewable Energy Sources Program (savings in 2006: $314 million) to eliminating the Hydrogen Fuel Initiative (savings in 2006: $183 million).

It doesn't help, the Washington Monthly blog notes, that Congress is trying to increase tax breaks for energy companies.

Of course, there are many proposed spending cuts in the RSC plan that definitely ought to be shot down. Among these:

*Eliminate Federal Funding for the Corporation for Public Broadcasting. Savings: $400 million next year. Cost to the nation: Immeasurable.

*Eliminate Funding for the National Endowment for the Arts and National Endowment for Humanities. Savings: $270 million next year. Reasonable cuts could be made, but national tragedy should not be used as an excuse to get rid of programs one political party has been trying to lynch for years.

*Reduce Funding for the Centers for Disease Control. Savings: $1.8 billion next year. That's a gigantic slashing of the CDC's budget, and at a time when threats are all around -- from bird flu to biological attack -- it seems unwise to shortchange the agency that is best equipped to help us prepare for and fight these threats.

*Eliminate the Energy Star program. Savings: $75 million next year. Heaven forbid we spend money to designate for consumers which products are energy efficient. After all, it's not like we'll ever find ourselves with a fuel shortage, right?

*Eliminate Teen Funding Portion of Title X Family Planning. Savings: $95 million next year. Yes, let's make it harder for poor teens to get contraceptives. Conservatives (such as George Will) like to complain that poverty wouldn't be such a problem if there weren't so many unwed teen mothers, yet at the first chance they get, they try to limit access to the family planning services that might actually have a shot at helping at-risk teens avoid that fate. Nice.

*Eliminate Presidential Election Campaign Fund. Savings: $55 million next year. This would wreck the system of public financing for campaigns. Eventually we won't need elections at all; we'll just auction off seats in Congress. That's pretty much what happens now anyway.

*Medicare and Medicaid -- essential programs to ensure the health of the elderly and the poor -- are also targeted mercilessly in this plan, to the tune of more than $44 billion next year. Yet nowhere do the authors of the plan suggest cost savings through bulk purchasing.

I'm not sure about these two:
1. Imposing a fee on government-sponsored enterprises, like Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac. According the the plan, this would bring in nearly $1.6 billion next year -- but is there some glaring problem with this that I'm overlooking?
2. Eliminate Subsidized Loans to Graduate Students. Savings: $840 million next year. Is it really that big a deal to offer only unsubsidized loans to grad students?

Deabters, what do you think?

Note that pork projects, such as those in the Transportation bill, aren't addressed by Operation Offset. A bipartisan consensus to cut the truly unnecessary spending (free of proprietary concerns from the most senior members of Congress over bringing home the bacon for constituents) is needed.

Even if such responsible budget trims are made, Chicago Tribune editorial board member Steve Chapman rightly argues that it remains irresponsible to rule out touching the tax cuts now, since everything we spend will eventually be paid for by taxpayers anyway.

This is yet another reason that the ThinkProgress proposal makes a lot of sense. (Part of the plan advocates a reduction in subsidies to individual farmers from $360,000 to $250,000 -- a smart reduction that President Bush and the Washington Post editorial board embraced months ago.) That wealthiest 1 or 2 percent don't really need further tax cuts -- the Angry Bear blog looks into why rolling back those cuts won't hurt the economy any more than the alternative -- and, hey, a bunch of them are probably benefiting anyway from the no-bid contracts that we've seen so much of in Iraq and are now becoming commonplace in Gulf Coast reconstruction.

At least there's some small chance of responsible spending, thanks to the unlikely duo of Senators Obama and Coburn. Transparency in the distribution of reconstruction funds can be achieved using the Internet, contends Eric Kavanagh: "every check the feds cut -- with the exception of entitlement and top-secret programs -- should be visible online."

What do you think the odds are that our government will go for that?

Speaking of things we never thought would happen -- Brownie is back. This time, he's being paid to do a job he's arguably even less qualified to do: consulting on what went wrong in the disaster response. [Insert big sigh from Daily Kos here.] Um, isn't former FEMA head Michael Brown more of a witness, rather than a consultant? Unlike a consultant, a witness need not be paid to provide information about his own role in a debacle he helped to create. Finally, looking for some fun? There's an idea floating around for a new game called Find the Brownie.

By Emily Messner |  September 28, 2005; 6:09 AM ET  | Category:  Beltway Perspectives
Previous: Hurricanes and Gas Taxes (cont.) | Next: This Week's Debate: Global Warming

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Hmmm...I have been told that the administration's grand plan in bankrupting the U.S. is to force us to cut large social programs (like Social Security, Medicaid/Medicare). That mentality is certainly reflected in some of the cuts proposed in Operation Offset.

Beyond that, I fall on the side of the debate that believes that education (and by extension, student loans and subsidies) should never be cut. Education is the most important investment in the future.

Posted by: Benny | September 28, 2005 08:42 AM

I looked at ThinkProgress.org...

Their blog is disgusting. Nothing but a bunch of foul-mouthed, angry people (with a sprinkling of reasonable people) on it. Not worth the Post promoting it. Really terrible, disgusting language! Ugh!

Posted by: Jolly Roger | September 28, 2005 10:36 PM

Just in the interest of clarity, the "frying pan" ads were a pro-bono effort on the part of the advertising industry (Partnership for a Drug-free America). They are/were(?) created by advertisers that do research and track market trends in the hopes of 'unselling' illegal drugs. These ads supposedly led to a demonstrable change, for the better, in people's attitudes toward illegal drugs. Although they were criticized for not aggressively going after legal drugs due to conflict of interest with large corporate clients (beer, liquor, cigs). The federal anti-drug effort, however, is run by bureaucrats, and some research suggests that their advertisements may inadvertently be encouraging younger people to think positively about drugs. All the more reason to get rid of it.

Posted by: HarryBrown | September 28, 2005 11:19 PM

The relative lack of comments on this subject is perhaps the best comment possible on it. The far right authors of Operation Offset can't even get the attention of their own Republican leadership -- and their half-baked proposals show why.

Posted by: pulaski | September 29, 2005 01:05 PM

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