WASHINGTON -- Monday morning the government braced for austerity, as the government understands that. Having sent Congress a $3.5 trillion budget, the president signaled in advance -- perhaps so his Cabinet members could steel themselves for the new asceticism -- that at the first meeting of his Cabinet he would direct the 15 heads of departments to find economies totaling $100 million, which is about 13 minutes of federal spending, and 0.0029 percent -- about a quarter of one-hundredth of 1 percent -- of $3.5 trillion.
If the Department of Agriculture sliced the entire $100 million, that would be equal to 0.1 percent of its fiscal 2008 budget. The president, peering from beneath his green eyeshade at the secretary of agriculture, might remember this from The Washington Post of Jan. 24:
"Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack ... learned that his new workplace contains a post office, fitness centers, cafeterias and 6,900 employees. But he remained uncertain about exactly how many employees he supervises nationwide. 'I asked how many employees work at USDA, and nobody really knows,' he said."
The president's $100 million edict actually suggests an insufficiency in the river of federal assistance flowing out of Washington to the deserving poor, as that category is currently understood: incompetent car companies, reckless insurance companies, mismanaged banks, profligate state governments, etc. But political satirists, too, deserve a bailout from a federal government that has turned their material into public policy.
The president has set an example for his Cabinet. He has ladled a trillion or so dollars ("or so" is today's shorthand for "give or take a few hundreds of billions") hither and yon, but while ladling he has, or thinks he has, saved about $15 million by killing, or trying to kill, a tiny program that this year is enabling about 1,715 District of Columbia children (90 percent black, 9 percent Hispanic) to escape from the District's failing public schools and enroll in private schools.
The District's mayor and school superintendent support the program. But the president has vowed to kill programs that "don't work." He has looked high and low and -- lo and behold -- has found one. By uncanny coincidence, it is detested by the teachers unions that gave approximately four times $15 million to Democratic candidates and liberal causes last year.