In a single week, the American people have been subjected to
misinformation about two of the most important matters in a democracy. The
first involved the true outcome of last year’s Presidential election in
Florida, where a newspaper-sponsored review of that state’s contested ballots
was initially reported to favor George W. Bush. The second emanated directly
from the White House, where Mr. Bush and his advisers have distributed the most
misleading budget document to emanate from that building in many years.
It is unsurprising, perhaps, that an administration brought
to power by deception would attempt to govern deceptively. But the details
reveal much about the character of government under the Bush restoration.
The President would like us to believe that the budget
exemplifies his philosophy of “compassionate conservatism” and demonstrates the
competence and focus that were so lacking during his campaign. His press
statements promise not only an enormous tax cut but a pared national debt, a
prescription-drug program for the elderly, a vastly increased expenditure on
defense, a “reform” of Social Security and Medicare, and an adequate provision
for all of the nation’s other domestic needs. Even a cursory examination of the
specific figures, however, shows that his budget message employs trickery to
permit the tax cut, which is his only real priority.
Let’s begin with the economic assumptions that underlie the
Bush budget for the coming fiscal year. As Thomas Oliphant pointed out in The Boston
Globe , the budget is predicated on the notion that the national economy
will grow by 2.4 percent in 2001. This can only happen if the present
stagnation suddenly erupts to a level of nearly 5 percent during the next two
quarters. No economist who isn’t on the White House payroll believes that is
going to happen.
Then there is Mr. Bush’s
assertion that his budget allows a “healthy” 4 percent annual increase in
government appropriations, or slightly more than the current rate of inflation.
This claim is meant to lull voters into thinking that there won’t be any
significant cutbacks in domestic spending (leaving aside entitlement programs
such as Social Security and Medicare, which are non-discretionary).
Yet if the budgeted additions for the Defense and State
departments are subtracted from the total increase in federal outlays for next
year, the real increase in domestic programs amounts to less than one-half of 1
percent-in other words, a damaging cutback.
Among the subterfuges
used by the Bush budgeteers to conceal their planned domestic cuts is the
“emergency reserve” proposed by the President. Although this is a perfectly
laudable idea, it cannot fairly be included as domestic spending for comparison
with previous budget levels, because any of the reserve money left unspent
cannot be appropriated for other purposes.
Moreover, the reserve fund is actually funded from the
Medicare surplus. And speaking of Medicare, Mr. Bush’s raid on that venerable
program would outrage most citizens if they understood what he has proposed.
As the President may or
may not be aware, Medicare is paid for by two separate trust funds, known as
Part A (hospital insurance) and Part B (supplemental medical insurance). The
Part A fund is financed entirely by payroll taxes, while the Part B fund is
covered mostly by appropriations from the Treasury. To help pay for his tax cut
over the coming decade, Mr. Bush intends to use current surpluses in the Part A
trust fund to replace annual appropriations for Part B over the next decade.
The result would be an almost total depletion of the Part A fund, just when
millions of baby boomers will need that money. Elsewhere in his budget message,
the President bemoans the coming strain on Medicare finances, a situation that
his plan will make much worse.
In light of such abuses of trust, the Bush budget’s phony touting
of a Medicare prescription-drug benefit almost seems innocent. That little scam
merely underfunds a campaign promise that would cost roughly twice as much as
the President plans to pay.
The slippery calculations
that underlie Mr. Bush’s budget are like the selective counting that put him in
office. Anyone who thinks the latest review by The Miami Herald and USA Today established a Bush victory is
as mistaken as those who take his fiscal figuring at face value. It’s true that
The Herald reported on April 4 that its recount favored Mr. Bush. It’s
also true that The Herald published a second article on
April 5 showing how Al Gore really won.
Just as the numbers that
undercut the President’s fiscal blueprint are hidden or omitted, so the numbers
that undercut his supposed victory were concealed or ignored by media coverage
of the Herald recount. His budget is
no more legitimate than his Presidency.