Cut spending? One program shows how hard it can be

David A. Fahrenthold / The Washington Post /

WASHINGTON — It took up just three lines in Congress’s last big appropriations bill, on Page 123 of 487. But it is a legend, a wonk’s campfire story. The government spending that nobody could kill.

“For payment to the Christopher Columbus Fellowship Foundation ... $450,000, to remain available until expended.”

This is the great survivor in the vast ecosystem of federal funding: a 20 year-old program that gives out cash prizes for science. President Barack Obama has called it inefficient and redundant. Both Obama and the House GOP — people who agree on almost nothing — have tried to eliminate it.

Each time, however, it has been saved by a powerful friend in the Senate.

Now, Washington is bracing for another crisis over spending: It will begin in earnest next week, as Republicans press Obama for spending cuts in exchange for raising the national debt limit.

But the Columbus foundation, based in Auburn, N.Y., shows that both parties are still struggling to turn their hard-nosed rhetoric about austerity into action. After all, it would be hard to imagine a less painful cut than this one: a program with two full-time employees and bipartisan enemies.

And yet, it lives.

“Cutting . . . is actually a lot harder than people think,” said Rep. Jo Ann Emerson, R-Mo., who made her own failed effort to kill the program last year.

In all, there have been seven explicit efforts to ax this program since Obama took office. The president has made four of them, asking for its demise in all of his official budgets.

Three Republicans have also filed bills to end it. Besides Emerson, Sen. Tom Coburn, R-Okla., filed a bill to enact Obama’s suggestion in 2011. And, last year, the foundation was targeted by a program run by the House’s GOP leaders: YouCut, in which online voters choose among possible spending cuts.

One week, the voters picked the Columbus foundation.

“We have a serious budget deficit,” Rep. Paul Gosar, R-Ariz., who’d been assigned by the GOP to shepherd the bill to cut the foundation, said in a Web video. “Spending on nice-sounding but unnecessary programs represents the low-hanging fruit of spending.”

All failed.

Emerson’s and Coburn’s efforts went nowhere. Gosar’s bill died in committee.

All along, as Obama and these Republicans were making a show of trying to cut the foundation, another Republican, Sen. Thad Cochran, R-Miss., was doing the quiet work necessary to keep it.

On the Hill, aides said Cochran has repeatedly requested the funding from Sen. Richard J. Durbin, D-Ill., who oversees appropriations for small government agencies.

Year after year, Durbin has agreed, and the full Senate has voted in favor.

When the Senate and House have met to resolve differences in spending bills, House negotiators have given in. “If you’re in a major negotiation,” one Republican staffer explained, “that’s a bone that’s small enough to throw the Senate, so you can get something back.”

The program they are fighting for is minuscule, at least in the big-number world of the federal budget.

Last year, the Columbus foundation offered $17,000 in awards for achievements in agricultural science, another $17,000 for life sciences and $25,000 for research that aids homeland security.

It also runs a competition for middle-schoolers who use science to solve local problems: the top teams are flown to Walt Disney World for a week, and the winners get a $25,000 grant. Over the years, those students have been awarded six U.S. patents, for inventions including an under-seat storage system on school buses, and a proposal to attach lights and a seat to walkers used by the elderly.

One problem: In many cases, these are things the federal government is already doing.

The U.S. Army runs a strikingly similar program that asks teams of middle-schoolers to use science to solve local problems. Its finalists are flown to Washington.

Maria Lombardo, a Boston educator, chairs the Columbus foundation’s unpaid board, whose members are appointed by the president. Lombardo said the plan, someday, is to subsist entirely on private donations. But not yet, she said. “Right now, we really need that support,” she said. “We’re not yet ready for that giant leap.”

In 1992, this was not how things were supposed to turn out.

“This program will be conducted at no cost to the nation’s taxpayers,” Rep. Frank Annunzio, D-Ill., the congressional architect of the program, said then.

Annunzio’s plan for funding the foundation looked like this: The government would sell specially minted coins, honoring Columbus on the 500th anniversary of his landing in 1492. The proceeds would fund a foundation in the great explorer’s name.

But the coins didn’t sell as well as he’d hoped. Annunzio had hoped they would raise $51.5 million. Only $7.6 million came in.

And, 15 years later, it started to run out. The board went to Capitol Hill, hoping it could break Annunzio’s no-cost pledge.

“It’s a sort of a national treasure, if you want to know the truth about it,” said James Herring, a lawyer who was the board’s vice chairman until recently. Herring was also a former chairman of the Mississippi Republican Party, which had donated more than $28,000 to Republican causes, including $1,250 to Cochran’s campaigns.

Annunzio couldn’t help: He had retired in 1993 and died in 2001. But the foundation, headquartered in a Democratic district in Upstate New York, found a powerful champion in a Republican senator from Mississippi. For fiscal 2008, Cochran requested $600,000 in new taxpayer funding for the foundation. He got it, tucked on Page 176 of a 614-page spending bill.

A spokesman for Cochran said that the senator supported the program long before Herring, his fellow Mississippi Republican, was put on its board. Cochran, he said, believes that the program has merit and has produced “notable accomplishments.”

In his official budget proposal in 2009, Obama noted that the foundation spent 80 percent of its funds on overhead and only 20 percent on awards.

It didn’t work. The foundation got $750,000 that year. Obama tried again in 2010. The foundation got $500,000. Then again in 2011. It got $450,000.

This image is copyrighted.