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Budget shenanigans


NO WONDER Dick Cheney swears he will never run for president. Even a quick peek at the astonishingly dishonest federal budget the administration released yesterday shows that President Bush and his veep plan on leaving ticking time bombs behind when they get out of town four years hence. By general agreement, the government's finances are lacking in elementary credibility. That's now. What is less well understood is how much of Bush's budgetary buffoonery is meant to become apparent after his successor is in office.

The first clue to the truth lies in a measure of the federal deficit this crowd adores obscuring but is forced by law to disclose. It's found only in a large table buried in the budget documents and estimates the government's operating red ink -- the amount by which spending exceeds revenue from income taxes and other fees. Last year it was far above the deficit figure that that typically makes its way into headlines -- $567 billion, compared with the "official" figure of $412 billion.

The difference is almost entirely accounted for by the large surplus in Social Security payroll taxes over benefit spending that the government "borrows" to make the books look less ridiculous. The higher number, however, is the amount of red ink that has to be financed by borrowing. And, as the budget documents also make clear, that operating deficit will be staying above a half-trillion dollars annually, swelling the national debt into the stratosphere. But that's only the tip the iceberg. The real outrage is the deliberate avoidance of unavoidable costs that the country faces if steps Bush wants to take are taken. If these steps are taken into account, a bad enough national debt of slightly more than $3 trillion four years ago will easily clear $11 trillion in a decade.

One of those steps involves the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. Bush does not budget these enormous costs -- he sends the bill to Congress after they have been incurred. There is, for example, an $80 billion request for the rest of the year, with others certain to follow. Projecting the costs of ongoing operations, there is more than $400 billion in war costs around the corner that the budget pretends don't exist.

An even larger sum is involved with Bush's insistence that Congress make all of the income tax cuts enacted since 2001 permanent. The budget released yesterday masks the bulk of the costs. Making the income tax cuts permanent would add no more than $100 billion to the debt over the rest of this decade. But in the five years after that, when the full fiscal effect would be felt, the tax cuts add a whopping $1.9 trillion to the debt burden. Bush has also continued his practice of ignoring an enormous tax issue -- the increasingly onerous nature of what's called the alternative minimum tax. This is a provision in basic tax law that requires a minimal income tax payment regardless of how much income a taxpayer can shield through the loophole system. It was designed to catch very rich people with smart lawyers, but it is starting to catch ordinary people. By credible estimates, at least 10 million Americans will pay the alternative minimum in a decade if the tax cuts are made permanent. Since the result would be a revolution, a change in the law is considered inevitable, but the Bush budget makes no provision for one. Just for the record, fixing the problem would add at least $770 billion to the debt by 2015.

Also missing from the budget is any hint of what's in store for Social Security. The official reason is that Bush hasn't made a proposal, but this is a dodge. He has said enough about his beloved private investment accounts to make an estimation possible. He has said they would not be phased in until the first year Bush has left office; he would also divert 4 percent of the payroll tax from revenues that pay for current beneficiaries. On that basis, nearly $800 billion in so-called transition costs would be incurred by 2015. Nothing Bush proposed yesterday would put a dent in this outlook. With these kinds of debt burdens, major economic consequences are unavoidable. The Bush-Cheney hope, however, is that they will be long gone by the time the country has to deal with the consequences of their profligacy.

Thomas Oliphant's e-mail address is 

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