At the Census Bureau, for instance, officials had already said they didn't need the more than $6 billion they had spent the year before. That money had paid for the once-a-decade 2010 census. There wasn't, of course, another census planned in 2011.
But to Congress, that was still a cut. The budget bill formally revoked the "budget authority" needed to spend the $6 billion that the Census Bureau didn't want. On paper, it looked like a huge reduction. But, at the Census Bureau, no employees were laid off. No projects were finished late.
At the Transportation Department, Congress canceled $630 million in "orphan earmarks." These were the wandering ghosts of the highway budget: pots of money assigned for specific road projects, which were still sitting unspent years and years later.
Often, this money seemed unlikely to ever be spent. Many projects had been canceled. In one case, the funds were earmarked for a road that did not even exist.
In 1998, Congress had earmarked $375,000 to upgrade "State Road 31" in Columbus, Ind. But there is no State Road 31. It was a mistake. So the money sat. "That was funding that we just couldn't otherwise use," said Will Wingfield of the Indiana Department of Transportation.
In the 2011 budget deal, Congress took that money back. In Indiana, Wingfield said, there was no noticeable difference. The state was already spending its own money to fix the real-life road, U.S. Route 31, that Congress was supposed to help.
"Don't count that as a cut," said former representative David McIntosh, R-Ind., whose earmark was responsible for the imaginary road. He said the mistake wasn't his fault: The state got the name wrong when it asked for money in the first place. "It never added, and would never add, to the debt. Your whole goal here is to reduce the amount of public indebtedness."