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.
Not content with seeing the program set to die after the 2009-10 school year, Secretary of Education Arne Duncan (former head of Chicago's school system, which never enrolled an Obama child) gratuitously dashed even the limited hopes of another 200 children and their parents. Duncan, who has sensibly chosen to live with his wife and two children in Virginia rather than the District, rescinded the scholarships already awarded to those children for the final year of the program, beginning in September. He was, you understand, thinking only of the children and their parents: He would spare them the turmoil of being forced by, well, Duncan and other Democrats to return to terrible public schools after a tantalizing one-year taste of something better. Call that compassionate liberalism.
After Congress debated the program, the Department of Education released -- on a Friday afternoon, a news cemetery -- a congressionally mandated study showing that, measured by student improvement and parental satisfaction, the District's program works. The department could not suppress the Heritage Foundation's report that 38 percent of members of Congress sent or are sending their children to private schools.
The Senate voted 58-39 to kill the program. Heritage reports that if the senators who have exercised their ability to choose private schools had voted to continue the program that allows less-privileged parents to make that choice for their children, the program would have been preserved.
As the president and his party's legislators are forcing minority children back into public schools, the doors of which would never be darkened by the president's or legislators' children, remember this: We have seen a version of this shabby act before. One reason conservatism came to power in the 1980s was that in the 1970s liberals advertised their hypocrisy by supporting forced busing of other people's children to schools the liberals' children did not attend.
This issue will be back. In a few months, the appropriation bill for the District will come to the floor of the House of Representatives, at which point there will be a furious fight for the children's interests. Then we will learn whether the president and his congressional allies are capable of embarrassment. On the evidence so far, they are not.