Both Democratic and Republican aides, however, defended this process in recent interviews. They argued that, under certain conditions, this "orphan" money could still have been spent by states or the federal government. To cut it was to eliminate that possibility.
"People tended to say, 'Oh, these will never be used again.' But while cuts in orphan earmarks were sitting on the Hill awaiting enactment, cities and States were spending the money, because they feared it was going to go away. It was real money," Robert Gordon, an official at the administration's Office of Management and Budget, said in a statement sent by e-mail.
Anyway, he said, these are the rules Washington has always played by.
"Budget authority is the authority to spend," Gordon said. "You cut budget authority, you cut the ability to spend."
But this approach led, in some cases, to situations where large "cuts" on paper translated into relatively small changes in reality.
At the Pentagon, for instance, the April 2011 bill required a whopping $6.2 billion cut to military construction. But through a combination of congressionally installed gimmicks and military ingenuity, the Pentagon escaped nearly unscathed.
It happened like this: First, the Pentagon "cut" $5 billion by doing nothing at all. This was money that had been needed the year before to help close out the Base Relocation and Closure (BRAC) process. The Pentagon had already said it wouldn't need to spend that much money in 2011.
It didn't. That counted as a $5 billion "cut."
Beyond that, defense officials found 94 existing projects where bids had already come in lower than expected. They added up those savings: $397 million. Then they looked for the bureaucratic dead: projects that had already been nixed for unrelated reasons. There was a sniper range in Louisiana. A headquarters in Djibouti. Air base upgrades in Guam. That was $568 million more.