If anyone is still inclined to give the Bush administration the benefit of the doubt on its budget numbers, the latest news on the cost of the Medicare prescription drug benefit should put an end to that.
You remember the prescription drug benefit. That's the program the president pitched in his 2003 State of the Union address as costing $400 billion. The White House strong-armed the bill through Congress in November 2003, again assuring everyone who would listen that its cost over 10 years would not exceed a CBO estimate of $400 billion. Then, two months later, the White House revealed that the program would actually cost $534 billion over 10 years. And then, a few months after that, it became clear that the administration knew all along that the $400 billion number was fantasy. Internal administration projections put the 10-year cost at $551 billion, but the administration withheld that information from lawmakers as they debated and voted on the Medicare benefit. In March 2004, the chief actuary for Medicare revealed that the administration had threatened to fire him if he told Congress about the $551 projection.
And that brings us to today's news. The administration's Medicare chief revealed Tuesday night that the prescription drug program will actually cost not $400 billion, not $434 billion, not $551 billion but $732 billion over the next 10 years. That's an increase of 83 percent over what the administration told Congress when it was selling the bill -- enough money in real dollars to cover the entire costs of the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq to date or to eliminate the budget deficit that the administration projects for 2009.
The news won't sit well on Capitol Hill, where Democrats already viewed the prescription drug program as a gift to big drug companies and Republicans were already unhapppy about the cost. According to the New York Times, Rep. Rahm Emanuel said Tuesday that the new projection for Medicare "destroys the credibility of the Bush administration." If the White House was so far off on Medicare, Emanual asks, why should anyone believe the administration's projections for Social Security?
A better question might be, why is anyone surprised?