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Caveat lector

14 September 1999

Extra!: The major parties’ new surplus

Synopsis: In today’s Post, Eric Pianin shows us how silly it gets when we pretend that we have a real surplus.

GOP Seeks to Ease Crunch With 13-Month Fiscal Year
Eric Pianin, The Washington Post, 9/14/99

Clinton Aides Say He Would Veto Tax-Cut Compromise With GOP
William Branigin, The Washington Post, 7/26/99

Incredible! In the Washington Post's lead story this morning, Eric Pianin describes the latest effort to pretend we have a non-SS surplus:

PIANIN: As they struggle to live within tough restrictions on how much they may spend, Senate Republicans may have found another creative way to shoehorn popular domestic programs into next year's budget: declaring the coming fiscal year 13 months long instead of the usual 12.

The "usual" 12? Has the number of months jumped around now and then, and we just failed to notice? Pianin quotes Senator Arlen Specter (P-PA), acknowledging a bit of smoke and mirrors. But nothing seems to faze the Post scribe, who swiftly goes on to write this:

PIANIN: The proposal—which has been embraced by Senate leaders—highlights how difficult it is for congressional Republicans to cut spending and live within tight budgets without resorting to what many experts describe as fiscal gimmickry.

What many experts describe as fiscal gimmickry? Let's see if we understand this. We're now saying the 2000 census is an emergency, and the year 2000 is thirteen months long—and the Washington Post has to check with experts to see if fiscal gimmickry is involved? Do you see how silly our discourse gets, when we refuse to call a spade a spade—when we start pretending the government is awash in surpluses, because the two parties have agreed that they'll say so?

Over the course of the past several months, we've complained about the press corps' refusal to deal frankly with the surplus projections (for full links, see below). When President Clinton announced new projections in June, one paper after another came forward with analyses, pointing out the obvious problem with the non-SS projections. The OMB and the CBO were projecting a $1 trillion surplus, over ten years, in the operating budget of the federal government. But as these analyses pointed out—again and again—those projections were based on spending caps agreed to in the 1997 Balanced Budget Agreement. And expert after expert agreed—the spending caps were so low that there was no chance they would ever be met. If government spending increases at the rate of inflation, the "surplus" simply doesn't exist.

The Washington Post was quick to point this out, in its July 5 lead editorial. But, in a trend we observed all through the media, the Post's reporters soon stopped mentioning this glaring problem in their coverage of the budget negotiations. All over the media, writers wrote of the "age of surpluses," although everyone knew that the non-SS surplus was a hoax. For example, here is William Branigin, in the Post, three weeks after the paper's editorial:

BRANIGIN: The battle...revolves around what to do with a projected budget surplus of $1 trillion over the next 10 years. The Republicans want to give the bulk of it back to taxpayers through tax cuts. The administration wants to set aside most of it to eliminate the national debt by 2015, save Social Security and Medicare and fund major domestic priorities.

A reader has no way of knowing what Branigin must know—that this "projected budget surplus" is based on future spending levels that will in fact never be met. He writes as if the projections are sound—even though his own paper, and numerous others, had long since explained they are not. All throughout the major media, writers began to write stories like this—declining to cite the most obvious fact about this crucial discussion.

And why did writers write like this—ignoring the elephant in the room? They wrote like this because both major parties are pretending the surplus exists. Branigin, for example, immediately quoted Senator John Breaux on the subject:

BRANIGIN: "If we don't get together, we're headed for a major train wreck...," Breaux [D-LA] said on "Face the Nation." "Here we have a trillion-dollar surplus, and the two political parties in Washington can't figure out what to do with it. Only in Washington could you have that kind of problem."

Breaux engaged in familiar pandering, shaking his head over Washington's ways. But surely Branigin must have known that we do not "have a trillion-dollar surplus." But then, so did the panel on Face the Nation, though no one asked Breaux to address the problem—that he advocated returning a surplus to the American people which almost surely will never exist. (Breaux supported the $792 billion tax cut.)

All over the press corps, the scribes have deferred to the power of the two major parties. The parties have agreed to pretend that the surplus exists, because the surplus makes fabulous politics. The GOP is using the phantom surplus to offer voters an impressive tax cut. The Democrats offer expanded Medicare, which they would fund with the phantom moneys. But have you seen a single journalist ask a politician to speak to the well-defined problem—the fact that the projected surplus only exists if Congress sticks to impossible spending limits?

And now we see the first, tiny conflict, even before big future cuts are required. Congress is adding a month to the year to try to work its way past this first mess. And are newspapers telling you what you should know—that this is just the beginning of a lengthy charade, whose end is already perfectly known? No—they're calling up experts to let them know if the 13-month year is a gimmick.

As we've explained, the press corps knuckled to GOP pressure when it misreported Medicare in 1995-96. This time, the parties agreed on a fiscal game. Did you really think that the timorous press would dare say it?


Visit our incomparable archives: Last month, we saluted the Post (and other papers) who explained that the surplus is a hoax. See THE DAILY HOWLER, 8/17/99, 8/20/99, and 8/23/99.

A week later, we pointed out that scribes were no longer mentioning the problem with the surplus projections. See THE DAILY HOWLER, 8/27/99. See Calchas' speech to swift runner Achilles in our incomparable postscript.

Last week, Dick Armey spun the surplus on Meet the Press. Stone Phillips didn't even say "Boo." See THE DAILY HOWLER, 9/10/99.

Tomorrow: In our postponed "Current howler (part IV)," we explore the granddaddy of all bungled basics. We visit the corps as it tries to explain the long-term problem with Social Security.