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8 March 2001

Our current howler (part IV): Lunch meat

Synopsis: Paul O’Neill ate Russert for lunch. Why wasn’t the big guy prepared?

Commentary by Sen. John Kerry (D-MA), Sec. Paul O'Neill
Senate Budget Committee, 3/1/01

Here at THE HOWLER, we don't really know why Clinton pardoned Marc Rich. But Clinton listed eight reasons in an op-ed piece, and Lewis Libby, Dick Cheney's chief of staff, testified to the Congress just last week that you could make a good case for the pardon. The pardon was lobbied for by Ehud Barak—and by the King of Spain to boot. Another disputed decision—the Vignali commutation—was supported by a wide range of Los Angeles big shots.

The pardons have been discussed to death. But if you want to hear repetitive questions about the pardons, Meet the Press is the place to go. Last Sunday, Tim Russert devoted two more segments to the question. Here's the breakdown from the NBC transcripts:

[Total: 5415 words]

And here's the time that was left to discuss President Bush's tax cut proposal, one of the most important budget measures in many a year:


The first two segments used up half an hour. The session with O'Neill lasted sixteen minutes. On Meet the Press, that general balance has persisted for weeks.

Maybe Russert's session with Carville would have been tolerable if he had gotten somewhere in his interview with O'Neill. But let's just say it: When Russert sat down with the Treasury Sec, O'Neill ate Tim Russert for lunch. Was the big guy even prepared for the session? Here were a few of the problems:

1) How much will the tax cut cost? Russert asked O'Neill about Democratic claims that the Bush tax cut would really cost $2.6 trillion. Not one word of O'Neill's reply had anything to do with what Russert had asked. Seeming not to notice this point, Russert simply moved on (see THE DAILY HOWLER, 3/6/01).
2) How much will go to the top one percent? Twice, Russert asked O'Neill about claims that 43 percent of the tax cut's benefits go to the top one percent. Both times, O'Neill pulled a switch—asked about the total plan, he gave an answer about the income tax provisions. That seemed to be fine with Russert. O'Neill was never forced to speak to the question which Russert had asked (see THE DAILY HOWLER, 3/7/01).
3) What about those White House numbers? On Saturday, both the Washington Post and the Washington Times reported on distributional numbers which the White House had released. Each paper devoted an entire story to the White House numbers (see THE DAILY HOWLER, 3/5/01). Russert—seeming wholly unaware of the Saturday stories—asked O'Neill if the White House would ever release such numbers. O'Neill—who dodged the distribution question all through the session—didn't mention the Saturday stories either.

Does performance like this by the press corps matter? Only if democracy matters. If the Democratic cost analysis is accurate, for example, then Bush's plan truly doesn't add up. You'd think Russert would want to examine that question. Sorry—the genial host was far too busy hashing and rehashing the Clinton pardons, asking again and again, for the thousandth time, questions which have been hashed and rehashed long before.

For the record, it's not as if a well-prepped host wouldn't have known where O'Neill would be going. In particular, O'Neill's testimony to the Senate Budget Committee last Thursday was both comical and instructive. During the session, Senator John Kerry (D-MA) questioned O'Neill about the cost of the tax cut proposal. Kerry raised the familiar points which Russert would raise—questions about interest costs of the tax cut, retroactivity, the Alternative Minimum Tax, and the so-called "tax extenders." Kerry was raising some basic questions—questions which have been frequently asked about the cost of the GOP plan. But to all appearances, O'Neill had no idea what Kerry was talking about. In an exchange reminiscent of "Who's On First," Kerry and O'Neill fumbled through a lengthy exchange in which O'Neill seemed completely befuddled by Kerry's basic numbers. We'll publish the grand finale of their extended exchange below. But it was perfectly obvious from the appearance that Paul O'Neill was not real eager to speak to the most basic questions. In the course of the full exchange, O'Neill agreed there would be $400 billion in interest costs in addition to the $1.6 trillion basic cost of the Bush tax plan. He agreed that Congress would probably make adjustments in the Alternate Minimum Tax, and would extend the so-called "tax extenders." How then, Kerry asked, was there money left over after the tax cut was passed? Bumbling and fumbling, O'Neill seemed perplexed by Kerry's questions. Mercifully, time was finally up.

Did Russert see the exchange with Kerry? Or was he spending his time thinking up new ways to rehash the Clinton pardons? On Sunday, Russert seemed unprepared for O'Neill's evasions. Result? Paul O'Neill ate Tim Russert for lunch.

Tomorrow: The press corps loves to bumble around with budget stories. We review other recent disasters.


The occasional update (3/7/01)

Who's on first: Here is a taste of Thursday's exchange between Kerry and O'Neill in the Budget Committee. This exchange represents Kerry's final efforts to get O'Neill to add up basic numbers about the tax cut. Where do you get Bush's trillion-dollar "rainy day fund," Kerry had just asked O'Neill. Kerry's questions refer to the basic, add-on costs of the tax cut which Russert asked about three days later (see Russert's graphic below). Again, O'Neill is trying to show how Bush would spend the $5.6 trillion projected surplus:

[Joined in progress]
O'NEILL: I'd be happy to sit down and do the numbers with you so we don't use up everybody else's time.
KERRY: Well that's what this committee is meeting for. This is our time.
O'NEILL: Then let's go through the numbers. [Picking up a pencil] There's $2.6 trillion for Social Security, right?
KERRY: Right.
O'NEILL: And there's $1.6 trillion for the president's tax program. [long pause]
KERRY: That's 4.2 trillion.
O'NEILL: And then— [another long pause]
KERRY: Well, then you have Medicare trust fund, Part B, 0.4 trillion. You have tax cut interest, 0.4 trillion. That's another 0.8 trillion—that's up to 5 trillion. And you have only 5.6 trillion in all. You have got your tax extenders, your AMT, and your retroactivity.
O'NEILL: You just gave me back $400 billion. I appreciate that.
KERRY: No, no, no. I'm accounting for the 400 billion that goes to Medicare. So if you say you're at 4.2 trillion, I just added 800 billion of expenses—400 billion for Medicare and 400 billion for [interest payments]. That's 0.8 trillion. That means you're at 5 trillion in expenditures. That leaves you 0.6 left. You've got tax extenders, the AMT, retroactivity and all the needs of the country in that 0.6 trillion. How do you do that? Where's your trillion dollar ["rainy day"] fund? I don't see it.
O'NEILL: You know I think the budget documents are in front of you, or if they aren't—
KERRY: Well I don't see it in there either. I see it double-counted. I see them taking it out of Social Security and moving it down.
O'NEILL: I don't think there's any double-counting at all.
KERRY: Well, but you can't give me the numbers. I just ran through them with you. We just added them up. 5.6 trillion minus 2.5 trillion [Social Security] minus 0.4 [Medicare] minus 0.5 in interest minus the Alternate Minimum Tax—
O'NEILL: I just don't accept the notion that we've got to do all the add-ons that you're suggesting—
KERRY: You don't accept that there's interest payments?
O'NEILL: No, no, no. I don't accept—you're running through AMTs and, uh—
KERRY: Well, you don't think that we're going to do anything about the AMT?
O'NEILL: I didn't say that you weren't going to do anything about AMTs. But I guess what I would assert is that if we're going to do something about AMTs, and we're going to do something about endless things that people would claim that we should do, as I said to the ranking minority member, there's no end to how big those numbers can be.

"Endless things?" Kerry had mentioned exactly four—interest payments, the AMT, retroactivity, and tax extenders. Which expense wasn't going to occur? Fumbling and bumbling, O'Neill wouldn't say. Mercifully, time ran out at this point, and O'Neill could stop his evading. Again, this transcript is only part of the exchange between Kerry and O'Neill about the budget plan's basic numbers. O'Neill was persistently unable to explain how the numbers in Bush's tax cut will add up.

Did Russert watch O'Neill in committee? Did he read about his various statements last week? If he had, he would surely have known that O'Neill has worked hard to avoid answering basic questions. O'Neill had been on his bicycle for a good solid week leading up to his Meet the Press session. And indeed, when Russert raised the very topic which Kerry explored, O'Neill's didn't utter a single word that pertained to Russert's question (see THE DAILY HOWLER, 3/5/01). What did Russert do at that point? What else? He moved to a different question! Congratulations, readers! This is how your budget discussion is being conducted—by a guy who mainly wants to keep flogging those pardons.

Graphic from Sunday's Meet the Press:

($ 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