In remarks after unveiling his proposed 2011 budget on Feb. 1, President Barack Obama spoke of the need to rein in spending by cutting "what doesn't work to pay for what does."
Obama boasted that the administration has gone through every department's spending "line by line" looking for "inefficiency, duplication and programs that have outlived their usefulness." Last year, he said, the administration found $17 billion in cuts; and "this year, we've already found $20 billion."
And then Obama threw out a few "commonsense" examples:
"We cut $115 million from a program that pays states to clean up mines that have already been cleaned up," Obama said. "We're also cutting a Forest Service economic development program that strayed so far from any mission that it funded a music festival."
We'll briefly touch on the first example later, but we want to focus on that second one, the proposal to eliminate the $5 million budget for a Forest Service economic development program "that strayed so far from any mission that it funded a music festival."
Forest Service officials told us the Economic Action Program (EAP) was created in the 1990s to stimulate and assist natural resource-dependent rural communities and natural resource-based businesses to pursue self-sufficiency and sustainability.
And what about the music festival Obama mentioned?
It's true. The EAP awarded a $10,000 grant to the Pacific County (Washington) Economic Development Council -- which it leveraged with $57,075 of its own funds -- to "provide partial funding for operation of the 1997 Water Music Festival including hiring local and regional artists and musicians. The Festival will help to enhance tourism and provide cultural opportunities for the small communities in southern Pacific County."
In case you missed it in the middle of the sentence, we reiterate: The music festival was in 1997!
The first year of Bill Clinton's second presidential term. The year Comet Hale-Bopp made its closest approach to Earth and the English Patient won the Oscar for Best Picture.
Asked about the festival, Becky Rine, a spokeswoman for the Forest Service, explained via e-mail that "in the late 1990s, the Forest Service awarded a number of small grants to the state of Washington to help small communities hurt by the economic downturn following decreased logging (associated with the spotted owl). Project selection was based on the ability to implement the project quickly and put people to work, as hundreds of logging mills were shut down in the Northwest."
"The music festival funding was not earmarked," Rine stated. "The grant was part of a multiagency revitalization effort for the Pacific Northwest."
The EAP has not funded a music festival since.
Still, Forest Service spokesman Joe Walsh acknowledged, "For sure, that went beyond the scope of the forestry service. We concur that it does not serve the interests of the agency."
But what does the EAP fund these days? Is it still funding projects that stray from the Forest Service mission? We asked the Forest Service press office several times for a list of last year's grant recipients. We finally got this e-mail response from Rine: "Since 2002, specific funding for projects has not been determined by the Forest Service, because they have been enacted by Congress."
Can you say earmarks?
In its formal budget proposal documents, the White House states that the EAP has provided funding for projects that have "marginal relation to the mission of the Forest Service or to forestry in general," though it doesn't provide a timeline. It lists several examples, including the music festival, and adds that "the program is also duplicative of other USDA programs that can address priority needs in rural areas and assist forest-based industries."
It's almost the identical argument made by the Obama administration when it proposed that the program be cut last year. Congress funded it with $5 million anyway.
In fact, it's also the same argument made by the Bush administration, when in 2008 it proposed to ax the EAP's funding. Congress awarded the program nearly $5 million that year, too.
Clearly, this program has a patron (or patrons) in Congress who keeps shoving the money back in. But good luck finding out who that (or they) might be, said Steve Ellis of Taxpayers for Common Sense, a nonpartisan Washington advocacy group that tracks government spending and highlights waste.
The same scenario is true for the first example cited by Obama, the proposal to cut $115 million "from a program that pays states to clean up mines that have already been cleaned up." Obama proposed a similar cut last year, as did Bush the year before.
In other words, Obama administration officials may have gone through the budget line-by-line to find waste, but these two examples were initially identified as wasteful or duplicative by the Bush administration. And when Obama says the administration found $17 billion in cuts last year, and $20 billion so far this year, we're not talking about $37 billion in total cuts.
"A lot of the cuts are repeat customers from last year," Ellis said.
Interestingly, Obama did not mention the biggest-ticket item on his list this year, the plan to cut nearly $3.5 billion from NASA's Constellation Systems Program, which aimed to resume manned missions to the moon. That proposed cut is not sitting well with some legislators in Florida, home of the Kennedy Space Center, and they have vowed to fight to have the funding restored.
When it comes to the two examples cited earlier, we think it's misleading for Obama to say "we found" them. Both of the cuts were suggested by Bush in 2008. We also think Obama's remarks suggest the administration has identified $20 billion in cuts this year in addition to the $17 billion in cuts it found last year. In fact, many of the proposed cuts this year are repeats from last year that were ultimately overridden by Congress.
The two examples cited by Obama here make for good belt-tightening sound bites. But this strikes us as part of the annual budget dance that happens every year: The administration proposes cuts it knows full well will be restored by some anonymous member of Congress who supports the program.
And maybe the Forest Service's EAP program is "not targeted" or duplicative, as Obama's budget documents suggest, but it's misleading for Obama to employ a way-back machine to discredit a $5 million Forest Service program by citing a $10,000 grant awarded for a music festival in 1997, during the Clinton administration. And so we rule his statement Barely True.
Editor's note: This statement was rated Barely True when it was published. On July 27, 2011, we changed the name for the rating to Mostly False.