washingtonpost.com
Fantasy Budget

By Dan Froomkin
Special to washingtonpost.com
Tuesday, February 7, 2006 1:36 PM

In the coverage of President Bush's proposed $2.77 trillion budget this morning, reporters are making no bones about the fact that it bears little relationship to reality.

For one, the budget is based on absurd assumptions and intentional oversights. For another, few if any of its most controversial provisions have any realistic chance of survival.

Why the exercise in fantasy? Well, what else are you going to do when -- in reality -- you've boxed yourself into a corner?

Jonathan Weisman writes in The Washington Post: "President Bush's budget blueprint would bring the federal government's budget deficit under control by decade's end. But to do that without raising taxes, the White House would need a sweeping tax reform that it has avoided proposing and a swift end to the war in Iraq.

"The budget plan for fiscal 2007 underscores what budget analysts of all political stripes have been saying for years: The goals of balancing the budget, waging a global fight against terrorism and making Bush's first-term tax cuts permanent may be fundamentally at odds. . . .

"Those factors led Goldman Sachs economists to tell clients yesterday that the deficit forecasts are 'unrealistic.' . . .

"'This budget is not going to happen,' said Stanley E. Collender, a federal budget analyst at Financial Dynamics Business Communications. 'Of all the budgets I've seen recently, this is the one going nowhere the fastest.'"

Edmund L. Andrews writes in the New York Times: "On paper, President Bush's budget seems to meet his promise of cutting the federal deficit in half by the time he leaves office.

"But in practice, the budget is much less realistic than it appears because it omits nearly a half-trillion dollars in costs that are likely to be incurred over the next five years.

"The omissions include any costs for the war in Iraq after 2007, any additional reconstruction costs for New Orleans after 2006 and any plan for preventing a huge expansion in the alternative minimum tax after the end of this year."

Michael Kranish writes in the Boston Globe: "Analysts questioned a number of assumptions in Bush's budget, such as his assertion that the government will take in $4 billion over five years from oil drilling in the environmentally sensitive Arctic National Wildlife Refuge in Alaska. Congress has rejected the president's proposal for such drilling.

"Bush's budget for fiscal 2007 also revives his failed plan to provide private Social Security investment accounts. The budget does not include details on how he would pay for those accounts."

Robin Toner writes in the New York Times: "George W. Bush ran for office as a 'compassionate conservative,' arguing that Americans did not have to choose between huge tax cuts and a government that would do its part to address social needs like education and health care.

"Now into his sixth year in the White House, Mr. Bush offered a budget on Monday that showed more clearly than ever the inexorable limits of that political promise."

The above-mentioned Stan Collender writes in his National Journal column (subscription required): "President Bush's fiscal 2007 budget is far more likely to be the fiscal equivalent of a tree falling in the woods when there is no one there to hear it than a sonic boom in an urban area."

After explaining why so many provisions are politically dead on arrival, Collender asks: "Why would the White House send Congress a 2007 budget that includes so much that won't happen?

"First, and most important, President Bush has put together a political platform for the year that appeals to core constituencies. . . .

"Second, unrealistic proposals allow the White House to say that it is on target to cut the deficit in half by the end of 2009."

He concludes: "The question, therefore, is not whether the Bush 2007 budget makes any noise if it falls in the woods. The real question is whether it will make any noise now that it has already fallen."

The Washington Post editorial board writes that Bush deserves credit for proposing modest steps to restrain Medicare's growth -- but only in the context of "the folly and unfairness of pressing to extend tax cuts in this fiscal environment and to expand tax-preferred savings vehicles that benefit the wealthy; the dishonesty of once again excluding known costs for things such as paying for the war in Iraq after 2007 and giving middle-income taxpayers relief from the alternative minimum tax; and the increasingly cruel squeeze on programs for low-income Americans."

The New York Times editorial board writes: "President Bush's $2.77 trillion budget is fiction masquerading as fact, a governmental version of the made-up memoirs that have been denounced up and down the continent lately.

Nuts and Bolts

Here is the proposed budget, from the White House.

Amy Goldstein writes in The Washington Post: "President Bush yesterday proposed a $2.77 trillion spending plan for the coming year that drains money from two-thirds of federal agencies, continues a large military buildup and predicts that the federal deficit this year will far eclipse the previous record, reaching $423 billion.

"In the White House budget for the fiscal year ending in October 2007, Pentagon funding would increase by nearly 7 percent and, for the first time in Bush's presidency, claim more than half the government's expenditure on discretionary programs, those that get set each year. The $439.3 billion that the plan devotes to the military is 45 percent greater than the Pentagon budget when Bush took office five years ago."

Peter G. Gosselin and Ricardo Alonso-Zaldivar write in the Los Angeles Times: "President Bush, in his new budget, wants to pare back many of the government safety nets that cushion the effect of illness and old age for millions of Americans, replacing them with arrangements the White House says assure greater benefits but that also place greater burdens on individuals.. . . .

"For the immediate future, few of Bush's safety net proposals are likely to win congressional passage with midterm elections approaching in November. . . .

"White House strategists understand election-year realities. The proposals were apparently designed to maintain the president's credibility as a leader who is ready to take on issues such as healthcare. They also are intended to show the administration's concern about federal deficits, though Bush has presided over substantial growth in federal spending."

David E. Sanger writes in the New York Times: "Democrats said Mr. Bush's emphasis on tax cuts had created what in their view was a false choice between addressing the budget deficit and maintaining necessary social programs. . . .

"Representative John M. Spratt Jr. of South Carolina, the ranking Democrat on the House Budget Committee, said, 'A budget is a statement of moral choices, and this budget makes the wrong choices.'

"The budget will pose particularly agonizing choices for the Republican majority. Republicans are caught between pressure from conservatives to make real headway in limiting the size and role of the federal government, and the political reality that votes to cut programs that touch the lives of millions of people could make them vulnerable to Democratic attacks in the fall."

Martin Crutsinger writes for the Associated Press: "President Bush, constrained by wars, hurricanes and exploding budget deficits, has sent Congress a 2007 spending plan that is garnering howls of pain from farmers, teachers, doctors and a wide array of other groups with special interests.

"Democrats, as expected, pronounced the Republican president's budget plan dead on arrival. But many Republicans were equally sharp in their reservations about the $2.77 trillion spending blueprint the administration unveiled on Monday."

Compare and Contrast

It's interesting to see how similar this year's budget -- and this year's budget coverage -- is to last year's. Read my Feb. 8, 2005 , column for comparison (scroll down to 'Budget Watch'.)

$300 Billion and No Apologies

Kenneth R. Bazinet writes in the New York Daily News: "When the estimated cost of the Iraq war soared beyond $300 billion yesterday, White House officials said there were no regrets about humiliating two top aides who had accurately predicted the war's cost.

"Retired Army Chief of Staff Gen. Eric Shinseki and White House economic adviser Larry Lindsey had pegged the cost of the war at $200 billion. Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld said it would cost only $50 billion.

"Lindsey was fired and Shinseki was shunted aside.

"Budget director Josh Bolten paused yesterday when asked if they were owed an apology.

"' I don't think so. The costs of the war are what they are,' he said."

Here's the text of Bolten's briefing.

Domestic Spying Watch

Dan Eggen writes in The Washington Post: "Attorney General Alberto R. Gonzales spent more than seven hours yesterday sparring with skeptical lawmakers over a controversial domestic eavesdropping program, defending its legality while refusing to answer dozens of questions about its operations or whether President Bush has authorized other types of warrantless searches or surveillance in the United States."

Dana Milbank writes in The Washington Post: "Just 13 months ago, at his confirmation hearing, Gonzales vowed that he would 'no longer represent only the White House,' instead representing 'the United States of America and its people.' Yesterday, however, he relapsed, referring to Bush at one point as 'the client.'

"Fortunately for Gonzales, the committee members did not seem to be in any position to impose restrictions on the executive branch. They couldn't even agree on whether to administer an oath."

Eric Lichtblau and James Risen write in the New York Times: "Mr. Gonzales said that as commander in chief, the president's powers 'are not limitless. Obviously Congress has a role to play in time of war.'

"But when asked to elaborate on where those limits lay, he refused to be drawn into specifics. He was asked several times, for instance, whether the president had or could authorize without warrants the interception of communications entirely within the United States, and he was careful to say that such interceptions were 'beyond the bounds of the program which I'm testifying about today.'"

Charles Babington writes in The Washington Post: "Despite President Bush's warnings that public challenges to his domestic surveillance program could help terrorists, congressional Republicans and conservative activists are split on the issue and are showing no signs of reconciling soon."

Babington spoke to committee chairman, Arlen Specter (R-Pa.).

"When Gonzales argues that the Constitution gives the president undisputable powers to conduct warrantless surveillance despite a statute aimed at requiring him to seek court approval, such an interpretation 'is not sound,' Specter said in the interview. ' . . . He's smoking Dutch Cleanser.'"

Best I can tell from a little Googling, Dutch Cleanser is an old-fashioned scouring powder -- possibly with hallucinogenic qualities when inhaled? So "smoking Dutch Cleanser" would appear to fall somewhere between "dreaming" and "smoking crack" on the expression-of-doubt spectrum.

Maura Reynolds writes in the Los Angeles Times: "At times, Democrats could barely contain their anger. Sen. Russell D. Feingold (D-Wis.) accused the administration of acting illegally and unconstitutionally.

"'What the administration has said is that when it comes to national security, the problem is that the Democrats have a pre-9/11 view of the world,' Feingold said. ' . . . The real problem is that the president seems to have a pre-1776 view of the world. That's the problem here.'

Poll Questions

Carl Bialik writes in the Wall Street Journal: "What does the public think about the Bush administration's wiretapping program?

"It depends on how you ask the question.

"A half dozen polls on the issue have turned up different conclusions, and a key distinction appears to be the way pollsters identify the people who might have their emails and phone calls monitored as part of an effort to fight terrorism. Recent poll questions have referred to 'suspected terrorists,' 'people in the United States' and 'American citizens.'

"For instance, in December, polling firm Rasmussen Reports asked, 'Should the National Security Agency be allowed to intercept telephone conversations between terrorism suspects in other countries and people living in the United States?' Nearly two-thirds said yes; just 23% said no. Yet 51% told USA Today/CNN's Gallup poll last month that the wiretapping program was wrong, when its target was described as 'telephone conversations between U.S. citizens living in the United States and suspected terrorists living in other countries without getting a court order allowing it to do so.'"

But Bialik only gets at the half of it.

Even the questions mentioning "American citizens" are still essentially framed as a Republican talking points.

The central question is not whether wiretapping suspected terrorists is a good idea. The more relevant questions are: Do you think Bush should get congressional or judicial permission first?; Does the lack of oversight make you concerned that innocent Americans are being spied upon?

Any poll question about a tactic for fighting terror that implies the alternative is doing nothing is bound to garner a lot of public approval in this day and age.

What about asking something like: What sort of anti-terror domestic spying program would you prefer: One without any judicial or congressional checks and balances that appears to be listening in on thousands of innocent Americans -- or one approved by Congress, where federal judges have to give their approval first?

Abramoff Watch

The White House is refusing to turn over official photographs of Bush with disgraced lobbyist Jack Abramoff. And blogger Josh Marshall last month exposed the scrubbing of Abramoff photos at the Web site of Reflections Photography, a studio that does photo shoots for many Republican political events.

Was the White House involved?

At yesterday's briefing , press secretary Scott McClellan issued an utterly disingenuous denial that he knows anything about the scrubbing allegation -- belied by his own sly suggestion that White House involvement has been refuted. Which it hasn't.

"Q Scott, there have been various reports that photographs of the President with Jack Abramoff have disappeared from the archives of photographic studios, at least one. Could you tell us whether the White House or anyone working at the White House's behest has taken any steps to remove any photographs that the President --

"MR. McCLELLAN: I don't know anything about that. I think that I saw some story where the very company that you're mentioning said otherwise. So I think you ought to see what they said."

Over at Huffington Post , they've reviewed what's publicly known about meetings with Bush at the White House that Abramoff set up for his clients.

Valerie Plame Watch

John Dickerson writes in Slate about his sudden appearance in a letter from special prosecutor Patrick J. Fitzgerald's case to indicted former vice presidential chief of staff Lewis "Scooter" Libby.

The letter reads: "We also advise you that we understand that reporter John Dickerson of Time magazine discussed the trip by Mr. Wilson with government officials at some time on July 11 or after, subsequent to Mr. Cooper learning about Mr. Wilson's wife."

Dickerson, now working at Slate, writes that those conversations actually took place before he learned of Plame's identity from his then-colleague Matt Cooper.

But Dickerson also explains in the greatest depth so far why the original Time story cast the Plame leak as part of an orchestrated Bush Administration war on renegade former ambassador Joseph Wilson -- rather than as some offhand mention.

Dickerson writes that on a trip to Africa, two senior administration officials, on background, urged him to look into who in the CIA sent Wilson on his fateful trip to Niger. This was before Dickerson learned from Cooper that presidential counselor Karl Rove had specifically mentioned Wilson's wife.

Dickerson adds that when he learned Plame's CIA cover had been blown, "[i]t seemed obvious that the people pushing me to look into who sent Wilson knew exactly the answer I'd find. Yet they were really careful not to let the information slip, which suggested that they knew at the time Plame's identity was radioactive."

Rove on the War Path

Kenneth Lovett writes in the New York Post: "President Bush's top adviser contacted Gov. Pataki personally to rip Senate Majority Leader Joseph Bruno for comments that the United States should withdraw its troops from Iraq.

"An angry Karl Rove called Pataki over the weekend, a source close to the governor said.....

"Bruno's comments on Iraq came when he was asked if Bush's sagging poll numbers are worrisome to New York Republicans.

"'Frankly, I think it's time, like most people think, for him to get the troops out of there and bring them home,' Bruno said."

$1,000 Reward

Democrats.com, a Web site angling for Bush's impeachment, has posted a $1,000 reward to any reporter who will directly ask Bush this question:

"How can you claim you were trying to avoid war through the UN, when you told Prime Minister Blair on Jan. 31, 2003, that if you failed to get a resolution from the UN authorizing war, 'military action would follow anyway' - including a scheme to paint a U.S. spy plane in U.N. colors to provoke an Iraqi attack on the U.N. itself?"

The question is based on assertions in a new book by a British human rights lawyer. (See this BBC story .)

Poll Watch

Vaughn Ververs writes for CBSNews.com about a new poll on the media.

"Asked to compare the media's treatment of President Bush compared to past presidents, 35% said they thought the press has been harder on the current president, 18% said the media has been easier in its coverage and 45% said he's been treated about the same as others."

Here are the complete results .

"Republicans are more than five times as likely as Democrats to say the news media has been harder on George W. Bush compared to other presidents. In 1995, it was the Democrats who were more critical of the media's treatment of then President Clinton.

"On the matter of telling the truth, 59% think the news media tells the truth all or most of the time, while 40% say they are truthful only some of the time or hardly ever. The public is more critical of the Bush Administration on this measure. A majority --- 59% -- says the Bush Administration tells the truth only sometimes or hardly ever; just 39% say the Administration is truthful always or most of the time."

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