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A little more on the budget

I finally caught the severe cold/sore throat that everyone else had a month ago, and I've been working on another project, so I haven't posted as much to the Decembrist as I would like. I expected to take a closer look at the budget, but obviously didn't get past the pictures, which I mentioned the other day.

All the good blogs by people who actually know something about economics, like Max Sawicky have by now thoroughly covered the budget. If you want a good just-the-facts summary of the major outrages, with the actual outrage left to your own mind, always rely on the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities.

A month ago, when the first "leaks" of the Administration's proposals started to come out, I wrote a short piece called "How To Read the Bush Budget," listing the ordinary ways that almost any presidential budget fudges the numbers, particularly about cutting discretionary programs and estimating the savings from tangential changes affecting entitlements. I got a lot of compliments on that post, and I notice it's gotten a lot of hits in the last three days. Let me just make clear that the reason I could do that post a month before the budget came out was that it explained the predictable ordinary white lies that are to some extent in the budget of every president. They are the "this never happened to me before," or "She's not really my girlfriend, we just went out a few times" kind of lies. The dishonesty in the 2005 budget is more like something out of a movie on the Lifetime network, with the guy whose wife and three kids in Chicago don't know that he has a whole other family in Texas, plus another one in Canada and everything's fine until the three wives accidentally meet... Well, you know the rest.

There's the decision to project out just five years instead of ten. There's the complete failure to account for expensive policies the administration favors, such as reform of the Alternative Minimum Tax. There's the overstatement of the current deficit in order to make plausible the claim that they will cut it in half in three years. All of these are the very same things that men like Richard Scrushy of Health South and Bernie Ebbers of WorldCom are likely to go to jail for. And this is on top of the "discovery" that the Medicare bill will cost 1/3 more than estimated, which the very, very sober and non-ideological budget analyst Stanley Collender has already compared to Enron.

The Center on Budget and Policy Priorities also points out another amazing thing that has not received much attention. The budget proposes to restore the "pay-as-you-go" rules that governed Congress when I worked on the Hill. They were frustrating, but essential to getting the deficit under control: Any money you propose to spend, through spending or tax cuts, has to be offset with a spending cut or tax increase. Except in the Bush version, tax cuts would not have to be offset. But refundable tax credits -- the kind of tax cut that helps poor working families -- would have to be offset. And increases in entitlement spending could only be offset with other spending cuts, not by closing tax loopholes. In other words, the rule says, you can't do anything, really, except cut taxes. Amazing.

Posted by Mark Schmitt on February 5, 2004 | Permalink


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