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Super Twiggy, the cartoon squirrel

Federal spending cuts not so easy

Doubts arise as Congress tries again

– One day this summer, the House of Representatives faced a decision. Should America cut off the money for Super Twiggy, the cartoon squirrel?

At that time, across-the-board budget cuts called sequestration were kicking children out of Head Start and leaving FBI agents without gas money. Congress was still supposed to be looking for smaller, smarter ways to cut the budget – so they could replace that big, dumb one.

And so it came to Super Twiggy. The squirrel starred in Web videos in Spain, touting the health benefits of California-grown walnuts. U.S. taxpayers had paid more than $3 million for Spanish walnut promotions, as part of a $200 million-a-year Agriculture Department program that promotes U.S. farm goods overseas.

“The Republican majority was supposed to end this kind of nonsense, not perpetuate it,” said Rep. Tom McClintock, R-Calif., trying to kill the broader program with an appeal to his party’s small-government soul. “It is a test of the determination and sincerity of the House majority.”

It didn’t work. After other members touted the program’s value to farmers, the cut was rejected, 322 to 98.

There – in a vote and, in fact, in a nutshell – was the story of the American austerity wars in 2013.

Republicans in Congress had forced a historic shift: Washington, for the first time in years, was focused on cutting, not growing, the budget. But then, politicians in both parties choked on the decisions that came next: Where to cut. Whom to hurt. What to kill.

Instead, they allowed sequestration, a cop-out that – at least in theory – cut the good and the bad equally. That created odd contrasts: Meals on Wheels was cut, and Army units reduced training; Washington kept paying for dubious expenses such as a plane that didn’t fly, an airport with no passengers and farm subsidies in Manhattan. And a private industry’s spokes-squirrel.

This month, Congress canceled sequestration’s across-the-board cuts and gave itself another chance to demonstrate that legislators can make smarter, more judicious cuts. But so far, it has mainly demonstrated the power of old Washington habits, the political reflexes that make cutting government so hard.

“The only way Congress can make cuts is across the board, because they have trouble making decisions,” said Robert Bixby of the Concord Coalition, a group seeking to reduce the federal deficit. “If you’re trying to limit the scope of government, or the function, it doesn’t accomplish that goal at all. It just gives you less money to accomplish the same goals, which is why it doesn’t really work over the long term. Either the money grows back, or you provide a declining level of service.”

Three years after deficit-driven Republicans took the House, Washington’s experiment with budget-cutting has produced mixed results. Politicians have, indeed, had historic success cutting numbers – the abstract, friend-less figures at the bottom of the federal balance sheet.

In the next fiscal year, for instance, the government’s “discretionary” spending will be limited to $1.012 trillion. That figure was set by the budget deal agreed to last week. That’s down about 13 percent from 2010, adjusting for inflation.

There has been very little change in “mandatory” spending programs, which account for the vast majority of federal spending.

But the budget deal signed in August 2011 was projected to save about $2.1 trillion by 2021, as compared with the levels of spending projected before. And to some conservatives, that’s victory enough. The big number went down.

But to many other people – conservatives and liberals both – this is a dispiriting outcome. They expected more from austerity.

It was supposed to force Washington to face decisions about how the country really ought to spend its money. Finally, legislators would eliminate the duplicative, wasteful or profligate programs that they’d ignored in fatter times.

“Have we eliminated anything? No. We haven’t,” said Rep. Mick Mulvaney, R-S.C., a conservative in his second term. “I can’t think of a single major agency that we’ve gotten rid of. Or a role of government that we’ve gotten rid of.”

And even when legislators focused on a real-world cut, even small-government Republicans often found reasons to keep government doing the same things it did before.

Now – in theory – Congress has a chance to hit the reset button and find new ways to cut the budget. Last week, legislators approved a deal that canceled the sequester and gave the House and Senate appropriations committees the chance to write a new bill with specific, targeted reductions.

But some conservatives – inside and outside the House – say they’ve already seen enough to doubt.

“At some point, nothing’s going to change. So why keep saying it?” said Tad DeHaven, a Cato Institute analyst who helps run the website DownsizingGovernment.org. For 14 years, he has pushed for Washington to rein in spending and the size of government.

Next year, as Congress begins its new effort, he will quit and go into business with a friend in Pennsylvania.

“I got tired of being asked on radio shows and such, ‘What can we do about it?’ Because I couldn’t continue to pretend that there’s a lot that can be done,” DeHaven said in a telephone interview. “You’re going up against an aircraft carrier with a slingshot.”

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