WASHINGTON — Late on the night of April 8, 2011, Washington's leaders announced they'd just done something extraordinary. They had agreed to cut the federal budget — and cut it big.
"The largest annual spending cut in our history," President Barack Obama called it in a televised speech. To prevent a government shutdown, the parties had agreed to slash $37.8 billion: more than the budgets of the Labor and Commerce departments, combined.
At the Capitol, Republicans savored a win for austerity. There would be "deep, but responsible, reductions in virtually all areas of government," House Appropriations Committee Chairman Harold Rogers, R-Ky., promised a few days later, before the deal passed.
Nearly two years later, however, these landmark budget cuts have fallen far short of their promises.
In some areas, they did bring significant cutbacks in federal spending. Grants for clean water dried up. Cities got less money for affordable housing.
But the bill also turned out to be an epic kind of Washington illusion. It was stuffed with gimmicks that made the cuts seem far bigger — and the politicians far bolder — than they actually were.
In the real world, in fact, many of their "cuts" cut nothing at all. The Transportation Department got credit for "cutting" a $280 million tunnel that had already been canceled six months earlier. It also "cut" a $375,000 road project that had been created by a legislative typo, on a road that did not exist.
At the Census Bureau, officials also got credit for a whopping $6 billion cut, simply for obeying the calendar. They promised not to hold the expensive 2010 census again in 2011.
Today, an examination of 12 of the largest cuts shows that, thanks in part to these gimmicks, federal agencies absorbed $23 billion in reductions without losing a single employee.