Federal budget’s new ‘black book’

Each year, the administration releases its federal-spending blueprint — usually in a series of phone book-sized tomes that must surely weigh eight to 10 pounds. And of course, the first thing most of us look for is what programs are slated for big gains — or excisions. Well, team Obama made looking for the big cuts a little easier this year. This morning it issued a 120-page volume: “Terminations, Reductions, and Savings: Budget of the U.S. Government, Fiscal Year 2010.”

Barack Obama entered office with the nation facing a record $1.3 trillion budget deficit for the current year. “Just as families across the country are tightening their belts and making hard choices so must Washington,” the new budget document says. The 121 programs that it recommends should die or diminish substantially could save taxpayers $17 billion. 

First, there are the terminations: more than five dozen in all. Among them:
— an anthrax vaccine research program. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention “has achieved its stated goal” for this decade-long program: to support human clinical trials and conduct surveillance for a long-term safety study. Savings: $8 million.
— the Javits Gifted and Talented Education Program. Although the administration supports G&T education, “there is no evidence showing that this small federal program, which has been in operation for more than a decade, is increasing the availability of gifted and talented programs, enhancing their quality, or advancing innovation in the field.” Moreover, only 15 school districts across the country were funded. Savings: $7 million.
— local climate-change grants. Begun last October, the administration found that this program “lacks guidance, defined outcomes, and an effective means of targeting funds. Moreover, the program duplicates more substantial efforts under way across the federal government, and the scope of the new program is too broad to effectively compare competing grant proposals and target funds.” Savings: $10 million.
— rehabbing the Los Alamos Neutron Science Center, a 30-year-old linear accelerator. More powerful and more flexible machines can better handle its traditional tasks — investigations of nuclear weapons and basic science — and at lower costs. Even its use to produce medical isotopes has ended. As a result, outside organizations have become the facility’s primary users, and they do not pay the full costs of its operations. And the aging facility is in need of refurbishments estimated to cost $180 million, which the facility’s operators no longer find justified. Savings: $19 million.
— nuclear hydrogen activities at the Department of Energy aimed at designing “an economic, commercial-scale, environmentally benign hydrogen production system using nuclear energy by 2015.” The problem: the technologies being considered under this program require higher temperatures than current nuclear reactors can deliver and “significant basic research is needed to overcome the technical barriers to a competitive hydrogen economy.” Savings: $8 million.
— Nuclear Power 2010 — subsidies to an industry program aimed at helping utilities overcome regulatory uncertainties associated with reactor licensing. Uncle Sam was expecting to go in 50:50 to a tune of $500 million. More recent estimates suggest the federal share could exceed $700 million. Since the program has already spurred significant interest in developing new power plants — 26 to date — the federal government wants to end further subsidies. It would spend $20 million this year to phase out the program. FY 2010 savings, based on previously planned spending: $158 million.
— oil and gas company tax preferences (eight terminations) so that these companies begin paying the same taxes as other companies engaging in energy production. Costly subsidies “do little to incentivize production or reduce energy prices and would cost taxpayers $26 billion over the next decade,” the administration says. “Yet these taxes are “only a tiny percentage of annual domestic oil and gas revenues — about one percent over the coming decade … [and] any claim that this proposal would have a significant impact on oil and gas production is unfounded.” FY 2011 savings, when it would go into effect: $1.47 billion.
— a Student Mentoring Program funded through the Department of Education. The agency’s March evaluation of this program concluded it was “ineffective.” Students who were receiving in-school mentoring through the program were compared to those who were not, based on 17 separate measures of achievement, behavior and “school engagement.” The finding: no statistically significant difference between the groups. Savings: $47 million.
— the Yucca Mountain long-term nuclear-waste repository in Nevada. The administration would shut this facility down while moving ahead with looking for alternative sites for storing spent nuclear fuel. Meanwhile, DOE will convene a “Blue Ribbon Commission to evaluate options and make recommendations to the administration for developing a new plan for the back end of the nuclear fuel cycle.” Savings: $91 million.

Among major cuts slated elsewhere in the budget:
— construction funds for buildings and facilities run by the Agricultural Research Service. This year’s spending would zero out funds and rescind plans to spend $50 million on ARS construction projects during the current fiscal year. Savings: $97 million.
— funds for a second prototype airborne laser missile-defense weapon “and instead focus the program’s research and development efforts on resolving the numerous technology problems with the first ABL prototype,” which has been under development for 13 years. Savings: $214 million.
— low-payoff construction projects by the Army Corps of Engineers as directed by congressional earmarks. The Corps would instead be directed to work only on projects central to its primary mission: facilitating commercial navigation, reducing risk of floods and storm damage and restoring aquatic ecosystems. Savings: $244 million.
— annual farm-commodity payouts to no more than $250,000 per person and a phasing out of the direct payment of subsidies to farms with sales exceeding $500,000 per year. Savings: $143 million.
— and miscellany: a prohibition on spending any money for outside contractors to create new seals or logos for the Department of Homeland Security; cancellation or delay of 26 Department of Veterans Affairs conferences for a current-year savings of about $18 million (that money will now be redirected into delivering “benefits and services to veterans”); and closure of a Department of Education office in Paris, saving $632,000 a year.

Janet Raloff is the Editor, Digital of Science News Explores, a daily online magazine for middle school students. She started at Science News in 1977 as the environment and policy writer, specializing in toxicology. To her never-ending surprise, her daughter became a toxicologist.

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