So it came to Super Twiggy. The squirrel starred in Web videos in Spain, touting the health benefits of California-grown walnuts. U.S. taxpayers had paid more than $3 million for Spanish walnut promotions, as part of a $200 million-per-year Agriculture Department program that promotes U.S. farm goods overseas.
“The Republican majority was supposed to end this kind of nonsense, not perpetuate it,” said Rep. Tom McClintock (R-Calif.), trying to kill the broader program with an appeal to his party’s small-government soul. “It is a test of the determination and sincerity of the House majority.”
It didn’t work. After other members touted the program’s value to farmers, the cut was rejected, 322 to 98.
There — in a vote and, in fact, in a nutshell — was the story of the American austerity wars in 2013.
Republicans in Congress had forced a historic shift: Washington, for the first time in years, was focused on cutting, not growing, the budget. But then, politicians in both parties choked on the decisions that came next: Where to cut. Who to hurt. What to kill.
Instead, they allowed sequestration, a policy that — at least in theory — cut the good and the bad equally. That created odd contrasts: Meals on Wheels was cut, and Army units reduced training; Washington kept paying for dubious expenses such as a plane that didn’t fly, an airport with no passengers and farm subsidies in Manhattan. And a private industry’s “spokes-squirrel.”
This month, Congress canceled sequestration’s across-the-board cuts and gave itself another chance to demonstrate that legislators can make smarter, more judicious cuts. But so far, it has mainly demonstrated the power of old Washington habits, the political reflexes that make cutting government so hard.
“The only way Congress can make cuts is across the board, because they have trouble making decisions,” said Robert L. Bixby of the Concord Coalition, a group seeking to reduce the federal deficit. “If you’re trying to limit the scope of government, or the function, it doesn’t accomplish that goal at all. It just gives you less money to accomplish the same goals, which is why it doesn’t really work over the long term. [Either] the money grows back, or you provide a declining level of service.”