Bye Bye, Big Bird. Hello, E. Coli.

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JONATHAN COHN FEBRUARY 12, 2011

Bye Bye, Big Bird. Hello, E. Coli.

Now we know what life will be like if the House Republicans get their way: Financial aid for college will decline, food-borne illness will spread more easily, Head Start programs will shrink, and Big Bird might be out of business.

After a difficult week of negotiations, the House Appropriations Committee on Friday evening released a detailed list of spending cuts that would reduce non-defense federal expenditures by about $60 billion* between now and September, when the fiscal year ends.

In so doing, House leadership addressed the concerns of Tea Party activists and newly elected Republicans, who were angry that previous spending plans didn't shrink the size of government sufficiently. But that is an awful lot of money to take out of the budget in such a short time, particularly if none of it can come from either the Pentagon or the large entitlement programs (Medicare, Medicaid, and Social Security) that comprise the majority of federal spending. 

A Democratic source has passed along a non-partisan analysis that shows, in detail, what those cuts would mean. Although I have no precise, line-by-line corroboration of the analysis, sources I consulted told me the predictions sound about right. The analysis is also consistent with a paper that the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities issued last week, based on preliminary reports of the full Republican spending plan. 

According to the analysis I’ve seen, these are among the cuts:

About 8 million college students would see their Pell Grants fall by about 15 percent, with the maximum grants of $5,550 declining by by $845. “Our students count on that money, and we don’t have the resources to try to make that up,” one college financial aid officer told the New York Times in December, in response to talk such a cut might be coming.

Head Start funding would fall by more than $1 billion, forcing some combination of lower spending per child and fewer children in the program. The analysis I saw predicted more than 200,000 low-income children would lose slots in the program, although some of that may reflect the loss of funding from the expiring Recovery Act. Either way, it's a pretty big hit. Oh, and about 55,000 instructors and teachers could lose jobs as part of the cut.

In absolute terms, the cut to the USDA's food inspection program may seem a lot smaller--just $100 million. But that will almost certainly mean fewer inspectors, which is no small thing. As the non-partisan organization OMB Watch has noted, in recent years the number of inspectors has not kept up with the number of food producers--and "at no other regulatory agency does the size of the inspectorate need to be so closely aligned to the size of the industry it regulates." 

Title I grants, which help schools with particularly needy populations, would fall by $700 million, affecting 2,400 schools and one million children. Another 10,000 instructors and aides would likely lose their jobs, as well. This is a direct hit on low-income children and the communities in which they live. (In the forthcoming print edition of TNR, I profile a Flint, Michigan school that has won awards for its work with low-income students. A big reason why is its Title I teachers.)

Americorps? The House Republicans would wipe out its funding entirely. And the Corporation for Public Broadcasting? Same thing.

Hal Rogers, chairman of the House Appropriations Committee, says that he and his colleagues "weeded out excessive, unnecessary, and wasteful spending, making tough choices to prioritize programs based on their effectiveness and benefit to the American people." And it's true that some of these programs could genuinely use some reform. USDA has had management problems, for example, while Head Start's effect on long-term academic performance is questionable.

Even so, there is no question these cuts will have a huge and devastating impact on public services. (The best available evidence on Head Start suggests the program still has at least some positive impact, while providing affordable, quality day care to families that desperately need it.) Besides, it's not as if the Republicans are proposing to replace these programs with more efficient alternatives. Overall, according to the Times, these proposals "represent one of the largest efforts to reverse the outflow of federal dollars in modern times."

Perhaps aware of that fact, Rogers also says that his party's “hard decisions” were necessary “to show that we are serious about returning our nation to a sustainable financial path.” Of course, these are the same Republicans who insist upon tax cuts that benefit only the very wealthiest Americans and place an even greater burden on the federal government’s resources. 

Update: I originally wrote that the House Republicans had agreed to $100 billion in cuts, because that's what conservatives had been demanding, based on a full-year budget request. But the actual figure for reduced spending, according to the Times and Associated Press, works out to about $60 billion, so I changed that reference. Also, I tweaked the introduction and added a bit more material on the Republican defense of the cuts.

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posted in: jonathan cohn, politics, the new york times, medicare, pentagon, usda

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