"I actually enter into this with a happy spirit," White House budget director Joshua B. Bolten said during his hour-long briefing yesterday on President Bush's 2006 budget.
It's no wonder Bolten was so chipper: His budget was full of happy thoughts.
Transcript: Brookings Economist William Gale discusses the 2006 budget.
Transcript: Post's Jonathan Weisman
President Sends '06 Budget to Congress (The Washington Post, Feb 8, 2005)
Bush Calls for Familiar Trims (The Washington Post, Feb 8, 2005)
Congress Unlikely to Embrace Bush Wish List (The Washington Post, Feb 8, 2005)
Troops' Pay Raise, Retooling Efforts Come With Price (The Washington Post, Feb 8, 2005)
Plan Avoids Rollbacks That Some Feared (The Washington Post, Feb 8, 2005)
The spending plan Bolten outlined was a model of fiscal responsibility. But as he fielded questions for an hour, it became steadily clearer why the new budget seemed so restrained: The White House left out a lot of expenses the government is likely to have, while including savings the government is unlikely ever to see.
For example, Bolten granted that it is certain that more money will be needed for Iraq and Afghanistan in 2006 and beyond. "But," he added, "it wouldn't be responsible for us to take a guess at what those costs are."
Yet, moments later, Bolten explained why it was perfectly responsible to guess about new revenue from drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge -- even though such a program has not been approved by Congress. "Well," he said, "the budget is the right place to present the entirety of the president's policies, so all of his proposals are reflected in there."
The theme repeated itself throughout Bolten's briefing: Potential good news was embraced, and potential bad news was left out of the equation. How about the hundreds of billions of dollars the government would borrow to convert Social Security to personal accounts under Bush's plan? Not included. "The budget went to bed . . . before the president's proposals were announced," Bolten explained.
Nor are the hundreds of billions of dollars that it would cost to change the alternative minimum tax, which Bush had vowed to do as it hits more middle-class taxpayers. "It does need to be reformed," Bolten said, but it is not in the budget forecasts.
Such strategic inclusions and omissions -- a part of every budget, to be sure, but particularly big this year -- allowed Bolten to start his briefing with an optimistic display of charts: With labels such as "Rising Receipts," "A Disciplined Budget" and "Cutting the Deficit," the artwork was done without even a hint of red ink.
Giving his second annual budget briefing, Bolten, a product of the investment firm Goldman Sachs who was Bush's policy director in the 2000 campaign, avoided the sort of theatrical performance done by his predecessor, Mitchell E. Daniels Jr., who is now governor of Indiana. Where Daniels was political and pugnacious, Bolten was wonkish and mild.
Asked for a list of the 150 programs Bush would cut or eliminate, Bolten responded by saying: "A lot of it is inter-lineated throughout the budget." Asked why the government's forecasts for Medicare costs are lower than many other forecasts, he allowed that "these are very hard things to project."
That's not to say Bolten (or his boss) shied entirely from pain. Their plan to cut Medicaid growth by $45 billion over 10 years will cause governors to howl, and they are welcoming a challenge from farm states by saying, as Bolten did, that "there are savings to be captured" from agriculture subsidies.
But this did not detract much from the happy picture. When somebody mentioned that Bush has proposed some of the same cuts that have been shot down by Congress before, Bolten said this time would be different because of a "stronger interest."
Some of the questioners were clearly skeptical about the administration's assumptions: its decision to focus on growth in "non-security discretionary spending" (which ignores 80 percent of the federal budget), its belief that such spending could be held steady for five years (it has never happened before), and its dropping of 10-year budget forecasts (they show exploding deficits).
No quantity of skepticism, though, would disturb the budget director from his Zen state. "None of this makes us feel uncomfortable," he said.