Feb. 10, 2011 -- Talk about government waste.
In a bid to emphasize the need to rein in the nation's soaring deficits, Republicans today went outside the Capitol to highlight their push to cut down on federal waste. GOP lawmakers conducted a hearing in the middle of a cold, empty government building down the street from Capitol Hill that has been vacant for more than a decade.
Built in 1892 to house the U.S. Post Office department headquarters and Washington, D.C.'s post office facility, the Old Post Office costs $12 million a year to operate. It sits on some of the most prime real estate in the nation's capital, only four blocks from the White House.
But since it is only partially occupied, the government only collects $5.5 million in rent. That means taxpayers are losing $6.5 million every year on the operation of the building.
"We have passed laws, several laws," said Rep. John Mica, R-Fla. "We have passed specific laws to do this and we are sitting here in an empty, vacant building.
"It's just frustrating. We've been talking about this my entire career," he added. "We've got to do a better job."
Now, Republicans say they want to slice $1.7 billion out of the government's budget for buildings. They are promising a slew of other cuts, too, including ending President Obama's high-speed rail program, gutting the Environmental Protection Agency, and even cutting $74 million from the FBI's budget.
"We're broke," House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, said Thursday. "Let's be honest with ourselves."
But thus far, Republicans have left some very expensive sacred cows untouched, such as more than $5 billion every year spent on ethanol subsidies that neither help the environment nor save energy; $6.2 billion in tax credits for oil and gas companies flush in record profits; and $3.5 billion for an extra engine for the F-35 fighter jet that the Pentagon doesn't want.
Part of the engine is made in the district of House Majority Leader Eric Cantor, R-Va., another part in Boehner's district.
"I would like to ask you about some of the spending cuts that we don't see talked about," ABC News' Jon Karl asked Boehner. "I see the list the Appropriations Committee has put out where is there nothing in here about cutting funding for the extra engine for the F-35, for example. Isn't it a no brainer? The Pentagon says they don't want it."
"I am sure we are going to see a bill soon and all the details that come with it," Boehner replied.
"But another no brainer -- ethanol subsidies, you know, $6 billion a year -- not even talked about in any of the stuff you have put out," Karl said.
"Some of the things that you are mentioning are not in the discretionary spending pot," said Boehner.
"But shouldn't it be considered for cuts?" Karl asked.
"I'll remind you that we have been in the majority now five weeks," Boehner said. "We are going to have a long year. You are going to see more spending cuts come out of this Congress than any Congress in the history of this country."
Critics complain that the programs that escaped cutbacks managed to do so because of political motives.
"It's very hard to get people in Congress to vote against defense spending," said Ryan Alexander, president of the watchdog group Taxpayers for Common Sense. "There's a lot of waste in the defense budget because national security is a priority for every American."
While Republicans unveil their sweeping plans to slash federal spending, Democrats -- who still control the Senate -- are urging caution, warning that drastic cutbacks could prove damaging.
"The American people want us to cut spending while being reasonable in the process," Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., told reporters on a conference call. "We're not going to take a meat axe to this. We're going to do some very fine tuning."
"You can't just cut things that hurt the other guy," said Sen. Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y.
"We need to think about what we're cutting, and make sure those cuts aren't counterproductive. We need to pay attention to the quality of these cuts, not just the quantity," Reid said later on the Senate floor. "After all, you can lose a lot of weight by cutting off your arms and legs. But no doctor would recommend it."