CBO on Line Two for Rick Perry

It may be a few years too late to help him with his debate answer, but if Rick Perry still wants to know how much cutting three federal agencies would save, the green eye-shade types at the Congressional Budget Office can tell him. Sorta. 

Recall the lasting image of pre-Clark Kent glasses Perry at a November 2011 presidential debate struggling to come up with the names of the three agencies the former Texas governor would get rid of as president. Commerce? Check. Education? Check. But then, a blank.  "I can't. The third one, I can't. Sorry. Oops."

Former Gov. Perry

The third one was the Energy Department, if you’re keeping (non-budget) score at home.

Now, with the release of its hefty biennial list of ways to cut the deficit, the nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office took a look at those three agencies and what getting rid of them would save. And the answer, as with many things CBO, is simple: It depends.

“Eliminating a department could result in considerable budgetary savings to the federal government if some or all of the programs operated by that department were also terminated,” the CBO said. “In contrast, eliminating a department while transferring its programs in essentially unchanged form to other departments or agencies would probably result in little or no budgetary savings, because most of the costs incurred by departments are the costs of the programs themselves. 

“At best, simply transferring a program to another department might reduce administrative support costs, but in most cases, such costs are much smaller than the costs of the program’s activities,” it said.

And CBO kind of hints that people might notice the absence of some of those programs, which do things like give individuals, state governments, local governments, businesses and other groups things like subsidies, insurance benefits and interest payments.

“That collection of payments includes, for example, payments for individuals’ health care, grants and loans for postsecondary education, grants to state governments for highway projects, and payments to farm producers for crop insurance claims,” the CBO said.

But how much did agencies targeted by Perry cost?


The Commerce Department was the smallest department, with $15.6 billion in financial obligations in fiscal 2015, the CBO said. But because it brings in money from patents and the National Technical Information Service, its expenditures were $9 billion.

Education had $71.8 billion in obligations for 2015, with about $27.0 billion tied up in the Office of Student Aid and another $21.6 billion in the Office of Elementary and Secondary Education, including $15.5 billion for grants to school systems with high number of poor students.

Energy had $28.3 billion in obligations in 2015, but about 40 percent of its budget is related to national defense. 

“Of that sum, $8 billion was obligated for weapons activities, including management of the stockpile of nuclear weapons; scientific and technical studies to maintain the safety and reliability of those weapons; stewardship of the sites where the weapons and other nuclear materials are housed; processing and management of spent nuclear materials; and efforts to provide security for NNSA personnel and facilities, as well as for the transportation of nuclear weapons and materials.”

Would ditching those departments and their programs make a dent in the deficit? In 2015, the government spent $3.687 trillion. If the obligations for all three departments had been scrapped and the savings applied in that year, the total would have been $115.7 billion. Put another way, it would have cut spending by about 3.1 percent.