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6 March 2001

Our current howler (part II): Why bother?

Synopsis: Russert questioned O’Neill on the tax cut. We’re not all that sure why he bothered.

Richest 1% Will Get 22% of Cut, Bush says
Mike Allen and Glenn Kessler, The Washington Post, 3/3/01

Tax Cut Statistics Disputed
Dana Milbank, The Washington Post, 3/2/01

Tax-cut foes' analysis flawed, Lindsey says
Donald Lambro, The Washington Times, 3/3/01

Bush May Veto Excess Spending, Official Says
Mike Allen, The Washington Post, 3/4/01

Is Bush's tax cut a good idea? That is a matter of judgment. It's surely the press corps' primary job to make sure that the public has the facts. But on Saturday and Sunday, the Washington Post presented articles on the tax cut that were baldly misleading (see THE DAILY HOWLER, 3/5/01). And a report in Sunday's Times brought us out of our chairs. David Rosenbaum was doing the honors. Three paragraphs in, we got this:

ROSENBAUM: If the entire plan becomes law, the richest 1 percent of taxpayers would get between 22 percent and 45 percent of the tax benefits, depending on how the calculations are done.

"Depending on how the calculations are done?" Readers, it always "depends on how the calculations are done!" For example, if the calculations are done all wrong, one thousand percent of Americans may be men. And, as we saw from the fine print in Saturday's Post, Bush's cut gives 22 percent of its benefits to the top one percent only if the calculations are done all wrong. You have to do "the calculations" like this: You have to leave out Bush's repeal of the estate tax, which makes up one quarter of the total plan. You have to leave out the second five years of the income tax adjustments. Only then—only if you "do the calculations" like that—does the top one percent get 22 percent of the cut. But Rosenbaum explains that nowhere in his piece. Times readers have no way to know that.

As we'll see later on in the week, our celebrity press corps is routinely "challenged" by budget reporting. Rosenbaum flounders and flails. For example, here's how he starts out:

ROSENBAUM: Democrats maintain that President Bush's tax-cut plan would result in a windfall for the wealthy. Republicans say the wealthy would wind up paying a bigger share of national tax burden than they do now.

Which side is right? Both are. Here's how.

That would make things easy, but sorry—they aren't "both right" on the tax cut. And more specifically, Republicans don't say that the top one percent will pay a bigger share of "national tax burden." They only say the top one percent will pay a bigger share of income taxes. But income taxes are only part of Bush's plan—the one part that doesn't favor the wealthy. Rosenbaum never points that out, all the way through his piece.

Will Americans ever get the basic facts on this plan? Not from a diet of articles like this—and not if they're going to sit through interviews like the one Tim Russert conducted on Sunday. Thirty-five minutes into Meet the Press, Russert was finally through producing questions about why Bill Clinton might have pardoned Marc Rich. At this point, he devoted sixteen (16) minutes to an interview with Treasury Sec Paul O'Neill. Tim asked O'Neill about the cut. And we're really not sure why he bothered.

Consider one question which Russert asked—the most significant one in the bunch. It came midway through the interview:

MR. RUSSERT: There's another graphic [see below], and this is about the cost of the plan. You heard James Carville talk about a total of $2.6 trillion, and the Democrats have put this out. Let me put that on the—and this is the true cost of the plan, according to the Democrats. 1.6 is the president's campaign pledge. Then to make the tax cut retroactive, which everyone seems to support. Then the so-called alternative minimum tax reform. Up to one out of every three taxpayers could be paying more tax, in your words could be "mystified," because they'd be pushed into a higher bracket. That would cost money. Tax extenders, which every Congress seems to deal with. And interest cost, because you're not paying the debt down as quickly as you would without a tax cut. The Democrats say the true cost of the tax plan is $2.6 trillion, and that's just too expensive.

Here's the graphic to which Russert referred:

($ in trillions; 2002-2011)

Bush's campaign pledge: $1.6
Make tax cut retroactive: 0.2
Necessary AMT reform: 0.2
Tax extenders: 0.1
Interest: 0.5
True cost of Bush's tax cut: $2.6

Would the tax cut really cost $2.6 trillion? If so, then all kinds of bets are off. Essentially, that would use up all the available surplus. Needless to say, the question is very important. Here was O'Neill's reply:

O'NEILL: You know, again, I think people can endlessly make charts and, you know, add numbers and subtract numbers and whatever other magic you want to do. The facts about what the president has proposed are very straightforward. No one disputes that this tax structure that we have right now is going to produce, over the next 10 years, $5.6 trillion worth of surplus. Now, people argue about, "Well, maybe it won't turn out to be this much; maybe it'll turn out to be more." But there is a general agreement. Within our ability to forecast these things, the number is $5.6 trillion. The president has said $2.6 trillion is walled off. It's for Social Security. We're not going to use it for anything else.

RUSSERT: Not even for privatizing Social Security?

O'NEILL: Well, we have yet to get around to the issue of how we're going to fix Social Security. Let me finish my logic. Let me start again. $5.6 trillion is the amount in question that's generally agreed to be the surplus amount over the next 10 years; $2.6 trillion for Social Security; $1.6 trillion for this proposed reform of the tax system and $1.4 trillion for contingencies and to give us room for possibly other things that we decide as a general citizenship this is what we should do. You know, those are the numbers. People can dance around and make up tables all they want to. Those are the numbers.

Except, of course, those aren't the numbers. Those aren't the numbers at all. They aren't the numbers Russert asked about—the ones that add up to $2.6 trillion if the Democratic analysis is correct. O'Neill said nothing about the interest costs; nothing about the AMT. He said nothing about the cost of "tax extenders." He said nothing about retroactivity. In fact, O'Neill didn't say a single word that had anything to do with what Russert had asked. And we all know what a bulldog Russert is. Sorry—here's how he followed up on his question:

RUSSERT: But, in fact, the question is: Will those surpluses materialize? David Broder, the most objective and respected reporter I know in this town, had this to say...

And Russert went on to ask a long question about whether the surplus will really come to pass. In short, he went on to ask another question—wholly different from the first question, which O'Neill had 100 percent dodged.

It's hard to find the words to describe such an interview. Russert asked an important question—key; germane; on the money; essential. And Paul O'Neill completely ducked it. O'Neill didn't say a single word that related to what he had actually been asked. So Russert went on to something else. Will the tax cut cost $2.6 trillion? The question was never addressed.

There really no reason to ask a question if you're willing to put up with an answer like that. Next time, maybe Meet the Press should take the full hour to rub its thighs about bad old Marc Rich.

Tomorrow: More dodged questions.


The occasional update (3/6/01)

What's in a word: According to NBC transcripts, here are the lengths of Russert's interviews on last Sunday's show:

Interviews with Dan Burton, James Carville about Clinton pardons: 5315 words
Interview with Paul O'Neill about the budget:
2525 words

There's a price we all pay for certain press corps obsessions—as the press is now starting to show.