Budget office seen shifting gears on rating programs

President Obama's proposed $3.6 trillion budget spends more than $38 billion on programs the Bush administration said were "not performing," some as recently as last year, documents show.

Increased funding for many of the programs once deemed ineffective or unable to prove results reflects broad policy shifts ushered in by Obama and also a decision to measure performance differently.

Amtrak, for instance, would receive $1.5 billion — a slight increase — even though the rail service was considered ineffective by the Office of Management and Budget (OMB) under President George W. Bush.

Watchdog groups praised the Bush administration's ranking of programs, which is available on ExpectMore.gov, and contend that some programs with performance problems continue to receive funding mainly because they are politically popular.

"As soon as you start pumping money out the door, there's always someone on the other end willing to take it," said Leslie Paige of the watchdog group Citizens Against Government Waste. "It's a culture of spending that's gotten really out of control."

OMB under Obama plans to change how programs are evaluated, said spokesman Tom Gavin. The agency views the Bush system as too focused on ratings rather than improving performance, according to an analysis in the budget.

"There have been bipartisan concerns expressed with the … system," Gavin wrote in an e-mail. He did not say when those changes are scheduled to take effect.

Out of 1,015 programs reviewed on the ExpectMore site, which Bush unveiled in 2006, 26 were labeled ineffective and 173 could not show results. Most programs, including some that have not been reviewed in years, also received money under Bush — often at the direction of Congress.

Many programs have changed, been eliminated or are now wrapped into other initiatives, but a USA TODAY review of 89 non-performing programs identified in the proposed budget found that dozens are due for the same or more funding next year:

•Learn and Serve America, which encourages students to volunteer, would receive $40 million, an 8% increase. In 2007, OMB found it lacked data to show its impact. A spokesman for the Corporation for National and Community Service, the agency that runs the program, did not respond to calls seeking comment.

• Health Professions, which provides grants to train nurses and doctors to serve in low-income neighborhoods, was cited partly because an independent review found universities receiving grants did not send significantly more doctors and nurses to low-income areas. The program is slated to receive $406 million, a 13% increase.

David Bowman, a spokesman with the Health Resources and Services Administration, said the money will be used partly to train 2,500 more students in primary care and dentistry, bringing total enrollment to 21,500.

• A Department of Labor program that trains migrant and seasonal farmworkers for new jobs would receive $83 million, the same as this year. OMB found in 2003 that similar training was available elsewhere.

A department spokesman did not respond last week.

Obama proposed $17 billion in cuts when he unveiled his detailed budget this month. Presidents of both parties have struggled to trim spending. In past years, Congress has restored many cuts proposed by presidents, regardless of party, when lawmakers write spending bills, as they will do later this year.

"Congress refuses to make not just hard choices," said Sen. Tom Coburn, R-Okla., "but what should be easy choices about which programs to cut."