It's Candid Budget Time

Behind at least some of the smiling faces at a White House party earlier this month celebrating President Bush's victories in Congress, there may have been lurking worries. Do the administration's own budget numbers really add up?

A GOP memo recently leaked to the Bureau of National Affairs (BNA), a respected publisher of legal and regulatory information, indicates upcoming Congressional Budget Office figures, due Aug. 28, will show "no available budget surplus beyond Social Security and Medicare trust funds" in fiscal 2002. The memo also suggests that at least some Republicans are all too aware they may even have to dip into some part of the Medicare trust fund this year.

As reported by the BNA, the memo included comments such as these: "We are possibly already into [the] Medicare [Part A] trust fund this year and every year through FY '05 ... We are very close to touching the Social Security surplus in FY '03."

How did this come to be? One simple reason, says Sen. Kent Conrad, the North Dakota Democrat who heads the Senate Budget Committee, is that in a budget based largely on 10-year projections, as Bush's was, problems are bound to arise as economic conditions change.

Mr. Conrad has been sending out repeated warnings about weaknesses in the Bush budget, and doing a lot of number crunching of his own. He's puzzled. "Surely they knew [what was in the internal memo] before they wrote this budget?" he postulated at a recent Monitor breakfast. Bush's advisers have been somewhat elusive on the subject. White House Chief of Staff Andy Card told NBC recently the trust funds will not be touched. Which is it?

There might be ways to offset these somewhat dire predictions - such as considering lesser tax cuts in outlying years, or coming up with other creative fiscal maneuvers. The president and his team would be wise to consider these moves.

Right now, the best course would be a plain explanation of their position to the public. It's time for both short- and long-term budget arithmetic to take precedence over short- and even long-term political gain.

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