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Budget filled with sleight-of-hand accounting

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Kai Ryssdal: It wasn’t quite the dead of night last night when we finally learned the details of the shutdown-saving budget deal, like it was Friday when the agreement was made, but lawmakers and the White House did take their time. The fine print didn’t come out ’til well after dark yesterday. And there are some real cuts in government spending.

There’ll be less money the rest of this fiscal year for a lot of things, from environmental projects to renewable energy research and the Army Corps of Engineers. But a not insubstantial part of the savings would make accountants outside politics hang their heads. Marketplace’s John Dimsdale reports.

John Dimsdale: The $39 billion worth of spending cuts in the budget deal will shave only about a quarter of 1 percentage point off the public debt. And achieving that almost brought the government to a standstill.

Maya MacGuineas: This was a pretty bloody battle, particularly considering how small a piece of the budget it was over.

That’s Maya MacGuineas at the Committee for a Responsible Federal Budget. She says even so, the politicians did opt for some cuts that appear to be cuts but aren’t. For example, around 10 percent of the savings wouldn’t have been spent anyway. There’s money left over from an already-ended milk subsidy program, and funds unspent from last year’s census.

MacGuineas: Budget gimmickry is unfortunately commonplace for dealing with the budget and there will always be savings that are a little bit exaggerated and that’s just part of the way we get things get done in Washington.

There’s more accounting sleight-of-hand in the $3 billion in savings from eliminating orphaned earmarks. That’s money for construction projects inserted in the budget by lawmakers that never got spent. Ryan Alexander tracks earmarks at Taxpayers for Common Sense. She says some go back 20 years.

Ryan Alexander: One example that USA Today uncovered was that there’s unspent money that was earmarked for improvements to the transportation system in preparation for the 1996 Olympics in Atlanta — you know, long time ago. We don’t need to prepare for the Atlanta Olympics anymore.

In some cases the sponsor of an orphaned earmark has left Congress. And one sponsor died 11 years ago.

In Washington, I’m John Dimsdale for Marketplace.

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