In Washington, even simple multiplication can be tricky. You simply can't be too careful with numbers. Look at what happened the other day at the National Defense University.

Seems Congress passed a law a couple of years ago allowing the NDU to admit "the equivalent of 10 full-time students at any one time" from the private sector to attend its classes.

The private companies -- some, but by no means all, from the defense industry -- fork over $50,000 to NDU for each student's tuition.

NDU recently proposed doubling the number of private students. The House approved, but the Senate hasn't acted on that. Meanwhile, NDU's president, Lt. Gen. Michael Dunn, mulled the language carefully.

"Equivalent," after all, means different things to different people. Because the school year is 10 months, maybe you could have 12 students attend. That would be an equivalent of 120 student-months, which, divided by 12, makes an "equivalent" of 10 students a month.

Dunn asked for an interpretation from the Hill about this reasoning and got a go-ahead. So two more students were selected.

NDU then notified Congress, via the Pentagon, of the change. But the Pentagon's lawyers determined that the language meant that, however you multiplied and divided, the law allowed only 10 private-sector students on campus "at any one time."

So NDU had to tell two students, who had moved here and were looking forward to starting class this week, to go home. We're told the un-chosen were the last ones who had applied. It's not certain whether they were able to return to their jobs.

This was, Dunn said, an "innocent mistake." It was also "not a happy situation." "We apologized and offered them a slot anytime in the next three years."

Budget Writers Have Carte Blanche

Summertime is budget time for federal agencies, time to begin planning for their fiscal 2006 budget submissions. Every summer, the famous "Circular No. A-11" goes out from the Office of Management and Budget with guidance for "preparing, submitting and executing" the budget, which goes to Congress in February.

These agency proposals, due the end of September, are to reflect administration policies and priorities. Even so, there's a chronic problem, especially in election years, when agencies' proposals are a bit too specific, contradict rosy political forecasts and -- horrors! -- are leaked to the media, which naturally have a field day with them.

Cover letters in 2002 from former OMB chief Mitchell E. Daniels Jr. and in 2003 from current director Joshua B. Bolten contained the usual boilerplate language to agencies that "Your proposals should also be consistent with guidance provided by OMB, including that contained in OMB spring guidance memoranda."

But this year, Bolten's July 16 cover letter to Cabinet officers and other agency heads makes clear that "this guidance and your submissions do not represent the Administration's policy or proposed budget for a particular program for FY 2006." Not at all.

"As you know, the development of the budget is a fluid process and those issues will ultimately be decided" later, when everything is all done and ready to go to Congress, he explained. That would, of course, be after the election.

An OMB official is said to have briefed agency budget officers in mid-July on how to handle their submissions, but told them not to expect lots of information on paper. The reason, apparently, would be to prevent leaks to the media that could be used against President Bush.

An OMB spokesman said yesterday that Bolten's new version was "just a useful reminder" and that prior administrations had had similar language. "And, if our strategy was to prevent anything from getting out, we obviously failed."

There are rumblings that, in keeping with OMB's spirit of vaguery, some agencies are mulling whether to even send a budget request to OMB. However, some of the grousing may be a reflection of the oddity of working on a budget when there's at least a possibility of substantial rework if the White House changes hands.

We urge agency officials to submit on time. After all, whatever they say will "not represent the administration's policy."

Moscow Cracks Down on Gum Chewing

The anti-gum-chewing lobbying appears to be gaining worldwide support. First, a U.S. Embassy official in Sarajevo recently advised high school students there that Secretary of State Colin L. Powell, who was coming by for a chat, did not like kids chewing in class. So, just before Powell showed, the official said anyone chewing gum should swallow it.

Next thing you know, the Russian media are reporting that our pal, former KGB thug Vladimir Putin, is also anti-gum.

"Putin Warns Athletes Against Chewing During National Anthem," one headline read. The story was that President Putin recently told his National Olympic Committee chief, Leonid Tyagachev, that he wants the Russian athletes to sing the national anthem without chewing gum or smiling stupidly, Russian news accounts report. Tyagachev apparently passed the word to the Olympic soccer team coach, who is said to have told his players to be more serious when the national anthem is being played.

Does the gum lobby have a Moscow branch?