Billion Here, Billion There - Who Can Keep Track?

IF you ever imagined that the numbers bruited about in federal budget battles had much authority, and that savings were fixed and objective markers, consider these figures:

* The White House Office of Management and Budget (OMB) calculated that the bill establishing the first phase of its reinventing government effort would save the Treasury $5.9 billion over the next five years.

* The Congressional Budget Office (CBO) calculated savings of only $305 million on the same bill over the same period.

The White House knew that the CBO would score its proposals more conservatively, but a factor of 20 was more than it bargained for.

Partisanship does not explain the difference. The CBO is officially nonpartisan but works for a Congress controlled by Democrats - who also staff the White House. But the White House has an interest in finding all the possible savings it can, while the CBO is more disinterested.

The biggest single difference between the two calculations lies in the treatment of the financial incentives the White House would use to cut the government workforce by 252,000 employees. The CBO figures that these payments would amount to $1.7 billion in the current fiscal year alone. The OMB seems to have assumed that those costs would come out of savings within existing department budgets.

The slim savings that CBO found has added to the drive among ``deficit hawks'' in Congress to cut tens of billions of additional dollars from the federal budget.

But who's counting?

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