Washington’s Dishonest Budget Math

During fiscal debates in DC, politicians, the press, and interest groups all complain about supposed budget cuts. Yet every year, the budget gets bigger and more expensive. This seeming contradiction is due to the fact that Washington uses a strange form of math called “current services” budgeting. Under this system, a “cut” occurs anytime a budget doesn’t increase as fast as previously projected. This means that programs sometimes grow at more than twice the rate of inflation, but advocates of more spending get to complain that they are being subjected to “cruel” and “savage” reductions. While everyone inside the beltway understands how this game is played, ordinary Americans are completely deceived. They think that spending cuts are actually cuts - i.e., spending will be lower next year than it is this year. Defenders of the current system argue that “current services” budget is justified because it enables policy makers to know how much spending is “requried” because of inflation, demographic change, and previously-legislated program expansions. There is nothing wrong with having that information, of course, but that doesn’t justify dishonest presentation of budget numbers. If a politician or interest group wants to argue that a program should get a six percent increase because of various factors, that is a legitimate debate. But when a politician says that a program is getting a two percent cut because spending is climbing by four percent instead of six percent, that is deceptive. An article in the American Enterprise Institute’s magazine explores Washington’s dishonest budget math:
President Bush is not “cutting” Medicare spending—all the media hype notwithstanding… the President has not been suddenly seized by fiscal conservatism fever and did not, in fact, propose any spending cuts. Under the President’s proposal, federal spending on Medicare and Medicaid is set to increase by $84 billion from 2006 to 2008. That spending increase is certainly not a cut—even when including inflation, it represents a generous increase in entitlement spending. Newsweek confused cutting the rate of spending growth with cutting spending itself. The President’s proposals reveal an interesting picture: instead of growing at a 6.5% rate, the President would have Medicare grow at a 5.6% rate. Medicaid was set to grow at 7.3%; the President has proposed a 7.1% rate of growth. …It’s useful to place this spending restraint in perspective: entitlements face a looming $43 trillion shortage over the next 60 years, and unless entitlement spending is curbed, those programs are headed straight for bankruptcy. What’s fascinating is that if the President’s modest Medicare plans were realized, $8 trillion dollars would already be shaved off of Medicare’s future liability. It’s a hopeful reminder that moderate fiscal restraint can, over time, accomplish a great deal of good.