President Bush's 2005 budget came out last week. Different administrations approach the budget differently. Some agonize over every line item, trying as best they can to really get it right. Others take a more blase attitude, treating the budget as a necessary chore to be gotten over with as soon as possible, or a PR exercise designed to get a few days of good press and nothing more.
Over time, all administrations have tended to treat their budgets with less and less seriousness. This is mostly due to creation of the Congressional Budget Office in 1974. Prior to this, the president's budget was really the only source of comprehensive budget data. The Office of Management and Budget had a monopoly on detailed budgetary information. As a consequence, it took its job more seriously, and Congress also took the president's budget more seriously.
Today, Congress can get all the budgetary detail it wants from CBO. Moreover, it is required by law only to use CBO estimates of the cost of budgetary proposals when considering them. Sadly, this became a loophole that the Bush administration was able to exploit to get its ill-conceived Medicare drug bill passed.
The administration knew that Congress' budget resolution provided only $400 billion over 10 years to pay for the drug benefit. Even a penny higher and theoretically the bill would have been subject to a point of order that would have delayed its passage. Any figure much larger than $400 billion would have killed it entirely.
Therefore, it was very disturbing when The New York Times reported on Jan. 30 that the Bush administration's internal estimate was that the drug bill passed by Congress would actually cost $534 billion over 10 years. There is absolutely no question that if Congress had known this figure, the bill would have gone down to defeat. If the administration hid these data deliberately, it was utterly irresponsible and deplorable.
Of course, Congress played its own games with the drug bill. It delayed the actual start of benefits for 2 years, meaning that $400 billion was really being spent in 8 years rather than 10. Moreover, the program is phased-in so that spending in the early years is low. Once it really gets going, however, spending shoots up rapidly. In the second 10 years, spending will rise to $2 trillion, according to CBO Director Douglas Holtz-Eakin.
This brings us to the most important chapter in President Bush's budget, one titled "Stewardship." Buried in an appendix volume where reporters are unlikely to notice, it paints a chilling picture of long-term budgetary trends.
Bruce Bartlett is a former senior fellow with the National Center for Policy Analysis of Dallas, Texas. Bartlett is a prolific author, having published over 900 articles in national publications, and prominent magazines and published four books, including Reaganomics: Supply-Side Economics in Action.
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