We'd go fishing, too

By Tim Grieve
Published February 7, 2005 9:24PM (EST)

President Bush says his new budget proposal puts the nation on the path to cutting the federal deficit in half by 2009. It's a smoke-and-mirrors game, but you don't need us to tell you that. Take it straight from the mouths of White House budget director Joshua Bolten, Vice President Dick Cheney and the Congressional Budget Office.

But first, let's talk among ourselves for a moment about where we start. The budget deficit for 2004 was $412 billion. To cut that in half by 2009, one might think that you have to reduce the deficit to $206 billion. One would be wrong, at least if the White House is doing the math. The White House doesn't use the actual deficit for 2004. Instead, it uses the deficit that was projected for 2004 -- a much higher number, $521 billion. That $521 billion deficit never materialized, but starting with the big number makes it possible (a) to claim progress already, and (b) to make the 2009 target a whole lot easier to hit. If the White House started at $412 billion, it would have to shrink the deficit to $206 billion by 2009; by starting at $521 billion, it only needs to get down to $260.5 billion to claim victory. The White House claims that it's going to get there with money to spare. In the budget projections released today, the White House predicts that the 2009 budget deficit will be just $233 billion.

Mission accomplished! Or is it?

This is where Bolten and Cheney and the CBO come in. The White House will soon ask Congress for another $81 billion to fund military operations and reconstruction in Iraq and Afghanistan for the remainder of 2005. Bolten says the $81 billion is reflected in the White House's long-term budget projections, but that it "wouldn't be responsible" to include any further funding for the wars because no one knows yet just how much they will cost. It's a little like planning a family budget but leaving zeroes for groceries and gasoline starting next year because you don't know exactly how much they'll cost. But gas and groceries won't be free next year, and neither will operations in Afghanistan and Iraq. Last summer, the Congressional Budget Office made a series of projections for the costs of future military operations in the two countries. The most conservative projection -- one calling on a steady reduction in the number of troops deployed there -- put the 2006-2009 cost at $46 billion. Add that number to the White House's $233 billion projected deficit and you get a 2009 deficit of about $279 billion. Use one of the CBO's less rosy scenarios and the 2009 deficit climbs to about $341 billion.

As for Mr. Cheney? He confirmed this weekend that the president's Social Security plan would require $758 billion in borrowing during the first 10 years of its existence plus "trillions more" -- his words, not ours -- in the years after that. Bush's plan wouldn't take effect until 2009. While it's not clear how much of that $758 billion would be needed in the first year of the phased-in program, it's probably safe to assume that some of it would be. Add that number to the $233 billion. And if nothing else happens -- if Iraq and Afghanistan really don't cost a penny after 2005, if Congress doesn't fix the Alternative Minimum Tax, if Bush doesn't succeed in getting Congress to make all his tax cuts permanent -- that $233 budget deficit projected for 2009 would be a $991 billion deficit 10 years later.

It's no wonder that Cheney wants to be long gone by then.

Tim Grieve

Tim Grieve is a senior writer and the author of Salon's War Room blog.

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