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Money Matters: The Debt Commission Budget Cuts You Haven't Heard

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Programs designed to develop commercial spaceflight are just one of the areas President Obama's Debt Commission suggests cutting from the budget. (Image courtesy NASA)

Hamburger patties instead of steak.

Store brand coffee instead of Starbucks.

Hand-me-downs instead of back-to-school shopping.

For more than two years American families have had to tighten their belts and trim their budgets to cope with the recession, often sacrificing comfort and taste for the bottom line. Now, the president's National Commission on Fiscal Responsibility and Reform (aka, Debt Commission) has come out with its first recommendations on how the federal government can do the same.

But aside from the controversial big-ticket items that have captured headlines in the past 24 hours—like raising the retirement age and freezing government employees' salaries—the Debt Commission has several surprisingly simple solutions to help reduce the deficit by its $4 trillion goal.

AEHQ combed through the commission's draft savings plan, which details $200 billion (five percent of the goal) in illustrative savings by 2015, and here's what we found:

Trim the Fat

The Debt Commission suggests cutting the federal workforce by 10 percent, or 200 thousand employees, by 2020. Rather than implementing mass layoffs, though, the report proposes the government hire only two employees for every three that quit, for a net savings of $13.2 billion.

Ironically, the commission also proposes creating a "Cut-and-Invest Committee" tasked with finding at least $11 billion in savings, or one percent below the president's budget, in 2015, which would undoubtedly add new jobs and possibly inefficient bureaucracy.

Pay to Play

The Army Corps of Engineers "is responsible for investigating, developing and maintaining the nation's water and related environmental resources," according to its mission statement. But the Corps also takes on a number of low-priority tasks that overlap with the Environmental Protection Agency and the Department of Agriculture.

The Debt Commission report suggests cutting those extraneous projects and highlights one in particular that may bum beachgoers. For years the Corps has assisted localities in combating beach erosion by dredging sand underwater and dumping it onshore in an almost constant battle against nature. Rather than the federal government continuing to foot the bill for these projects, the commission recommends cutting Corps beach erosion efforts and instead making states, localities, and individual landowners fund the program—which will eventually mean charging beach visitors admission to enjoy the country's many public beaches.

Animal lovers could also expect to pay at the gate to visit their now-free furry friends. The National Zoo is part of the Smithsonian Institution, which is funded in part by federal grants and in part by a private trust. The Debt Commission suggests reducing the group's $1 billion 2015 budget by $225 million, offsetting that cost by asking nature and history enthusiasts to pay to access national treasures. Under this plan, the Smithsonian's 19 other museums will charge admission too.

Don't Go There

Non-military travel expenditures totaled $5.2 billion in fiscal year 2007. The Debt Commission notes that telecommunication technologies have improved dramatically over the past 10 years, which ought to have reduced or eliminated the need for in-person meetings, but travel expenses increased by 73 percent between 2001 and 2007. The Department of Energy has taken on the challenge, announcing this year that it would attempt to reduce its travel expenditures by five percent through telecommuting alternatives.

Similarly, the government spends nearly $4 billion a year purchasing, operating and maintaining its fleet of federal vehicles. Reducing the number of new vehicles purchased each year reduces that cost as well as related expenditures on fuel and upkeep.

Eliminate the Paper Trail

The push to convert medical records from paper to computers was a key component of the health care debate, the logic being that digitized documents are easily accessed across the health care system and significantly cut down on paper expense and waste. Now the Debt Commission suggests the feds adopt the same measures.

The federal government uses a tremendous amount of paper each year. It has a whole agency, the entire purpose of which is to put documents on paper: the Government Printing Office. The Debt Commission recommends eliminating paper paystubs for the more than 2 million federal employees.

It also suggests turning two-faced—that is, change copy machines' default setting to double-sided printing, reducing the amount of paper used in most federal offices by half. Including improving the energy efficiency of office computers, these measures can save $1 billion.

Don't Reach For the Stars

One of the easiest areas to point a finger at when it comes to cutting spending is the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA). President Obama's FY '11 budget has already outlined cuts to the program, including abandoning a plan to return to the moon. NASA is already phasing out its shuttles, with the last scheduled flights planned for next year.

And the Debt Commission suggests cutting the space agency's budget by an additional $1.2 billion, to eliminate a program to assist in development of American commercial spaceflight. "This subsidy to the private sector is costly," the report reads, "and while commercial spaceflight is a worthy goal, it is unclear why the federal government should be subsidizing the training of the potential crews of such flights."

Perhaps the commission does not regard the fact that NASA pioneered spaceflight as a good reason for the agency to assist fellow Americans in reaching the heavens.

Maybe Stop Prosecuting Terrorists

The commission reports that the Department of Justice is home to at least $1.6 billion in wasteful spending. The same can be said of just about all facets and programs of the federal government—including the Hollings Manufacturing Extension Partnership, the Balridge National Quality Program, the Economic Development Administration, and the Office of Safe & Drug Free Schools, all named in the report—but the example of waste the commission cites is a bit of an eyebrow raiser.

"Funded at more than $20 billion annually, the Department of Justice is tasked with keeping our nation safe by ensuring justice and prosecuting terrorists," the report reads.

"This option would reduce funding for the Department of Justice 5 percent below the President's budget, or about $1.6 billion in 2015. A cut of this amount could be achieved, in part, by reducing funding for grants..."

While critics will no doubt speculate that the Debt Commission is suggesting Justice cut terror prosecution, there is no telling what sort of grants the commission actually has in mind because the section cuts off there. The open-ended item is likely not a secret plan to end the War on Terror, though, rather an oversight editors missed on review.

After all, this is just a draft.