WASHINGTON -- In their campaign to whack away at what they describe as an overgrown and out-of-control federal government, conservative Republicans insist "everything is on the table." No programs are too popular, no entitlements too sacred to escape a ferociously wielded budget knife, they claim.
House Speaker John Boehner has said it, as has House Budget Committee Chairman Paul Ryan. Newly elected Sen. Rand Paul, R-Ky., has said it, as has veteran Sen. Johnny Isakson, R-Ga. But like so much of the rhetoric that befogs the nation's capital, it is meaningless, empty, disingenuous.
Some favored programs have clearly rolled right off the cutting table, while others were merely nicked with manicure scissors. Take military spending, which accounts for about 20 percent of the federal budget. So far, there is no agreement among House Republicans about paring back the Pentagon -- even though Secretary of Defense Robert Gates has recommended cutting $78 billion over five years. Some GOP members of Congress think Gates goes too far.
Not that Gates' proposed cuts would make much of a dent. The Pentagon's budget is still expected to be around $553 billion next year. Indeed, the United States will still spend more on its armed forces than the next 10 competitors COMBINED. Fifty years after President Eisenhower warned against the increasing power of the "military-industrial complex," and two decades after the collapse of the communist empire that fed it, the Pentagon retains enormous power over U.S. purse strings.
An even more puzzling budget oversight is agricultural subsidies, a form of welfare left over from the Great Depression. Republicans readily denounce any government handout that goes to average Americans -- characterizing even unemployment assistance as an unnecessary subsidy to the undeserving.
Yet, the much ballyhooed list of proposed budgets cuts submitted by the ultraconservative Republican Study Committee takes a hangnail off agriculture subsidies, leaving the massive welfare program largely intact. That's an estimated $12 billion to $15 billion a year.
Republicans claim an abiding faith in an unfettered free markets. Don't they want the government out of the farm business? Shouldn't farmers face the caprice of climate and competition without depending on handouts from the taxpayers?
Apparently not. The so-called "counter-cyclical payments" protect growers of certain commodities -- corn and cotton, soybeans and peanuts, among others -- from price drops, giving them a freedom from the "free market" that most entrepreneurs would envy. Other subsidies include direct payments that are more like traditional welfare but without any requirement that you work or get job training.
"The five billion in direct payments go to farmers whether they farm or not," said Sallie James, trade policy analyst at the libertarian-leaning Cato Institute, which has long criticized agricultural subsidies. "I don't know how you could characterize it as anything other than welfare, except that the means-testing for other types of welfare is far more strict."
James is certainly right about that. You think the bulk of the money goes to struggling "family farms," where the Williams or the Cunninghams have tilled the soil for generations? Not so. The family farm is a dying breed, rarer than the giant panda.
More than 60 percent of taxpayer-funded subsidies go to "large-scale farms with gross annual sales of $250,000 or more," according to a U.S. Department of Agriculture website. And they'll continue to collect despite the fact that farm incomes have soared over the last year.
No ambitious politician wants to cross the farm lobby, as a recent Iowa speech by Newt Gingrich attests. He had kind words for those wasteful subsidies of corn-based ethanol -- a sure sign that he's seriously eyeing a presidential bid. Corn-rich Iowa is an early hurdle in the presidential primary marathon.
Of course, as James noted, maintaining agricultural subsidies is a bipartisan protection racket, duly supported by Democrats and Republicans alike. U.S. Rep. Sanford Bishop, D-Ga., supports them, as does Sen. Saxby Chambliss R-Ga. So much for putting everything on the budget-cutting table.