Report: New Obama Budget to Slash Heating Assistance Funding
Insiders report that President Obama will propose cutting LIHEAP’s funding by almost half in his new budget. (image: homeenergyaffordabilitygap.com)
As part of an initiative to aggressively trim the national deficit, the Obama administration will propose a nearly 50 percent cut in funding for the Low Income Home Energy Assistance Program (LIHEAP), according to anonymous sources. The report on the proposed cuts was first published Wednesday in the Washington insider publication the National Journal, which referred to the sources as three “officials briefed on the subject.” The sources said that the proposal would cut $2.5 billion from LIHEAP’s current $5.1 billion funding package, but that the $590 million emergency fund for use during times of extreme cold or heat would remain untouched.
The story immediately sparked disapproval and outrage from public and private citizens, including members of Congress from both parties who represent the Northeast. In response to the news, Senator John Kerry (D-MA) sent a letter to the president urging him to keep LIHEAP’s funding intact (the full letter is available at the Huffington Post), writing:
We simply cannot afford to cut LIHEAP funding during one of the most brutal winters in history. Families across Massachusetts, and the country, depend on these monies to heat their homes and survive the season. It is estimated that over 3 million families that qualify for heating assistance would not receive it if the funding levels are not maintained. Compounding the situation is the increased cost of home heating oil, which is roughly 12 percent higher than last year.
Senators Chuck Schumer (D-NY) and Jeanne Shaheen (D-NH), as well as Representative Edward Markey (D-MA) all expressed opposition to the proposed cuts in comments to the Journal. The political implications of the proposed cuts run deep for both Northeastern Congresspersons and the president. Representatives and Senators from Northeastern states know that the funds provided to their constituents in need, who are disproportionately elderly, are crucial to keeping those constituents warm and safe during the winter. Even constituents who don’t receive LIHEAP assistance generally view the program as an important and eminently worthy use of government funds. As such, LIHEAP is widely regarded, especially in the Northeast, to be something of a sacred cow whose funding should not be reduced under any circumstances—a reality that would mean political suicide for any politician in the region who supported cuts to LIHEAP funding.
President Obama, on the other hand, has a very different political interest in this particular issue. With a reelection campaign just getting underway, Obama is keenly aware that he needs to attack perceptions many Americans have of him as a liberal and freewheeling spender of government funds. One way to go about this would be to propose major funding cuts to government programs that left-leaning voters and leaders in his own party consider untouchable, and LIHEAP is just such a program. By suggesting to slash its funding, Obama can show that he is serious about reducing the national deficit and counter his tax-and-spend reputation.
With this in mind, it is possible that the “leaked” news of the proposed cuts was a political move on the part of the president or his inner circle, and that the proposal is not as serious as Obama may want the country to believe.
In any event, whether the proposal is even in the president’s forthcoming budget remains to be seen. If it is, the battle over its implementation will surely be an intense one.