Numbers Don’t Add Up in Bush’s White House

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.