Bird-dogging Bush's budget

Policy wonks have their uses. They can be especially helpful to the press - and hence perhaps the public - in analyzing budget and tax affairs. These issues can be horribly complex and murky.

That problem is compounded when governments are purposely obscure.

And that, charges Robert Greenstein, director of the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities (CBPP) and a longtime budget wonk, is just what the Bush administration has been in presenting its tax cut in February and its budget last month.

The Bush people, he says, "had a major honesty problem [on fiscal affairs] to begin with, but it's getting much worse. They are hoping the media will not understand all these technical details."

That's where the wonks get busy. The CBPP, for example, has been holding weekly teleconferences for 12 to 20 reporters, editorial writers, and columnists trying to figure out what the White House is up to.

Often on the line are journalists with The New York Times, Washington Post, Washington Times, Los Angeles Times, major newspaper chains, news wires, Bloomberg, and other publications.

Television, with its normally short attention span, generally picks up any expertise it has on fiscal matters from newspapers or relies on talking-head wonks.

The CBPP experts also write long analyses of the various Bush tax proposals and of the budget. Often they do this in a day or two while the news is fresh. For instance, Mr. Greenstein has a new report called, "Following the money: The administration's budget priorities."

Bush's highest priority, Greenstein concludes, is tax cuts that primarily benefit the wealthy. The budget gives $50 in tax cuts through 2011 for every extra $1 going to education. Those who think this is a slanted partisan view can read details on, if they have Web access and patience to slog through 20 pages.

Whether the public gets much benefit from such analyses is hard to gauge.

"The press is more sophisticated than it was," says another CBPP expert, Richard Kogan, thinking back over the past 20 years, to when he began analyzing budgets and tax issues for the Democratic staff of the House Budget Committee.

For the press, the hard part is to write stories on tax cuts and the budget that don't put readers to sleep. Fiscal policy has a far greater real impact on Americans than, say, a spy plane down in China or Palestinian kids throwing rocks at Israelis. But the budget has less drama.

When experts like Mr. Kogan leave government, they often can find jobs using their skills and background in one of the host of think tanks feeding on Washington policies. He joined CBPP only this year.

The advantage of this personnel recycling process is that the wonks know the tricks of the trade. When the Bush budget comes out, Kogan and his CBPP colleagues can quickly pick out the crucial numbers - or note if they aren't there.

Right now, the Bush administration isn't telling the public details of where it plans to implement various spending cuts to make more room for its tax cuts.

To do so might make it more difficult to get the Bush plans through Congress. The good news (tax cuts) now; the bad news (spending cuts) later when it's too late for Congress to reverse course easily.

"Is it a proper reflection of the priorities of the American public to commit virtually all of the available surpluses to tax cuts, with little left for other problems or opportunities?" asks Greenstein. This issue, he argues, should be subject to debate by both policymakers and the public.

Kogan regards as "especially deceitful" what he sees as an administration effort to disguise the fact that such a large portion of the tax cut goes to the wealthy.

"They must know the majority isn't with them on this," he says.

Another problem is that the Bush tax cut really consumes far more of the surplus than the administration admits.

So what is behind all this? Is President Bush in a bargaining maneuver, taking a hard position in the hope it will win a bigger tax cut in the end after some compromises are negotiated in Congress? Or is Mr. Bush a "radical conservative," rather than the "compassionate conservative" he billed himself during the election campaign?

"I don't see overtures for a compromise," says Kogan.

The Bush rhetoric on the budget doesn't square with the budget's priorities.

It could be that Bush sees government as a "necessary evil." So the less of it the better. Then a big tax cut and spending cuts would work toward that goal.

This view, radical in Washington, could also hold that well-to-do Americans are the most productive. Since they also pay a great deal of total federal taxes, a budget surplus might be likened to stealing from the productive elements of society.

Giving much of that surplus back to the rich in tax cuts would thereby be good for the country - even if most Americans would prefer a tax cut slanted more to those who are less prosperous.

(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Monitor

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