President Obama called his full Cabinet together for the first time Monday and instructed the department heads to cut enough money from their budgets to set a new tone in Washington.
But the target the president set for the cuts amounts to a fraction of the overall budget, leaving room for critics to question whether the reductions mean much at all.
Obama has asked for $100 million in trims from a budget expected to exceed $3.5 trillion. The Cabinet secretaries have a month and a half to come up with proposed cuts.
“None of these things alone are going to make a difference,” Obama conceded, emerging from the Cabinet room. “But cumulatively they would make an extraordinary difference because they start setting a tone.”
If they cut "$100 million there, $100 million here,” Obama said, “pretty soon, even in Washington, it adds up to real money.”
Republicans characterized the target in different terms. A “meager .0025%,” said House Minority Leader John A. Boehner (R-Ohio). “Pathetic joke,” said Grover Norquist, president of Americans for Tax Reform.
“Let’s not forget that at the same time they’re looking for millions in savings, the president’s budget calls for adding trillions to the debt,” said Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.).
According to the White House, federal agencies have already started working to trim fat from their budgets.
At the Agriculture Department, officials have been searching for potential fraud and improper payments in farm programs, the White House said. People who get payments will now have to provide income information for verification so that ineligible recipients can be taken off the rolls.
Most employees at the Education Department will have a laptop or a desktop computer, but not both.
The Homeland Security Department will try to get better prices on its supplies by purchasing in bulk.
U.S. attorneys and U.S. marshals plan to publish judicial forfeiture notices on the Internet instead of in newspapers.
The Veterans Affairs Department has canceled or put off more than two dozen conferences and will start using more video conferencing in its training programs.
Some of the changes are expected to save a few hundred thousand dollars, others a few million.
As government money flows toward projects made possible by the president’s nearly $800-billion economic stimulus plan, some GOP critics say Obama is missing an obvious place to find cuts.
“If the administration wants to get serious about cutting waste, it should start by taking a closer look at how millions in ‘stimulus’ dollars are being wasted on a skateboard park in Rhode Island, bike racks in Washington, D.C., highway studies instead of construction projects in Ohio, and programs led by housing agencies that routinely fail audits,” Boehner said in a statement.
Obama acknowledged “a confidence gap when it comes to the American people. And we’ve got to earn their trust. They’ve got to feel confident that their dollars are being spent wisely.”
White House Press Secretary Robert Gibbs scoffed at questions about the dollar amount of the requested cuts.
“Only in Washington, D.C.,” he said, “is $100 million not a lot of money.”