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15 March 2001

Our current howler (part II): Short attention-span press corps

Synopsis: Does the Washington press corps have attention-span problems? Last Sunday, Meet the Press made us wonder.

Commentary by Tim Russert, Sen. George Allen (R-VA), Sen. Phil Gramm (R-TX)
Meet the Press, NBC, 3/11/01

Does the Washington press corps have attention disorders? Most Sundays, the poobahs running the Sunday shows seem to have the attention span of tsetse flies hooked bad on speed. This past Sunday, for example, Tim Russert assembled a gang of solons to chat about Bush's tax cut proposal. Here are his opening questions:

Question 1 (to John Edwards): Is bipartisanship dead in the Senate?
Question 2 (Phil Gramm): Will the top rate come down to 33%, or will it really just drop to 35?
Question 3 (Phil Gramm): Any chance that capital gains tax rates will be reduced too?
Question 4 (Evan Bayh): Would the tax cut really cost the treasury $2.6 trillion, as the Democrats claim?

Had Russert downed a case of Jolt? There's more continuity on the SAT Verbals! But finally, after Question 4, we did get a follow-up question. Russert asked George Allen what he thought about the Democrats' $2.6 trillion price tag:

RUSSERT: Senator Allen, you have any problem with those graphs the Democrats have put out?

ALLEN: Yeah. I don't think they're necessarily accurate.

RUSSERT: Well, what's wrong with them?

ALLEN: Well, first of all, they have the impression that, gosh, by letting people keep more of what they earn out of the surplus, that somehow that adds interest to the deficit. Do they add in interest if you allow the money to stay in Washington as opposed to giving it to the mothers and fathers and families and entrepreneurs of this country?

That was the end of Allen's attempt to respond to the question. Allen now offered a big pile of cant, rattling on for some time:

ALLEN (continuing directly): I think that you do need to take a businesslike approach to this, and we probably all would agree in theory on the idea that Social Security is protected, that helps pay down the debt, protect Medicare, take care of priorities, education being so important for the future of our children, as well as national security, law enforcement, basic scientific research. But there also ought to be a dividend to the shareholders, and I know, having watched Washington over the years, that if you leave the money in Washington, they'll find a way to spend it. And this is responsible in that it is over 10 years, it's phased in, it's not all going into effect in the first year. And so I think over 10 years, when you look at this approach, I think it's a fairly—not just moderate, I think it's a measly tax cut.

According to Allen, "a dividend ought to be paid to the shareholders of the country." But that of course wasn't what Russert had asked—he had asked if the proposed tax cut would cost the treasury $2.6 trillion. And sadly, Allen's rambling obscured the problems with the answer he did give to that question.

Why do Democrats say that the tax cut would cost the treasury $2.6 trillion? Among other things, they say that there are $400 billion in new interest costs if we decide not to use Bush's $1.6 trillion to pay down the national debt. Allen asked, "Do they add in interest if you allow the money to stay in Washington?" To the extent that Allen answered Russert at all, he seemed to imply that the $400 billion in added interest was a phony cost.

But is it? If Allen is asking if you have to add in interest costs to account for the effects of a spending program, the answer to that is yes—yes, they do "add in interest" for spending programs according to Senate procedures. The forecasting rules under which the surplus is scored assume that all undirected moneys will be used to pay down debt. If budgeteers decided to assign $1.6 trillion of that money to a spending program (defense, for instance), the CBO would indeed lop an extra $400 billion off the projected surplus to adjust for added interest costs. Given the way the surplus is forecast, a $1.6 trillion tax cut reduces the surplus projection by a total of $2 trillion. So does a $1.6 trillion spending program, as Allen—and Russert—should know.

Russert's question to Allen was important. If Bush's plan would really lop $2.6 trillion off the surplus, that's something we all need to know. Surely Russert, parsing jealously, came right back to the heart of his query. Our analysts awaited the clash of the titans. But here's where the host went instead:

RUSSERT (continuing directly): Well, when you look at the projections put out by the Congressional Budget Office, the middle one is, in fact, 10-year projection of $ 5.6 trillion.

ALLEN: Right.

RUSSERT: One says [the surplus could be] even more than that, could be $1 trillion a year. But one projection says there actually could be a deficit. So why not have something called a trigger, which Alan Greenspan, the chairman of the Federal Reserve, proposed—Senator Bayh has legislation which calls for that—which says that a tax cut would not be implemented, would not be, take place, a certain phase of it, unless the debt had been paid down and the surpluses materialize. Tax wouldn't go up, but additional tax cut wouldn't take place.

In short, Allen said the Democrats' interest cost was a phony. So Russert, continuing directly from there, asked for his views on a "trigger"—inquired about something completely different.

Does anyone ever have to answer a question on a Sunday morning talk show? Not to judge from the performances we've seen in the past several weeks. For two straight weeks, Russert has asked about the Democrats' claim that the tax cut will really cost $2.6 trillion. As a point of information, let's review the results we got when the question was asked.

On March 4, Russert asked Paul O'Neill about the Democrats' claim. O'Neill's answer had absolutely nothing to do with the question—so Russert moved on to something else (see THE DAILY HOWLER, 3/8/01).

On March 11, Russert asked Allen if there was anything wrong with the Dems' $2.6 trillion price tag. Allen said the interest costs were a phony—and Russert made no effort at all to determine if Allen was right.

So what's the point in asking a question if your guests don't have to answer? What's the point of asking a question if all answers are accepted as valid? The Democrats' claim about the cost of the cut clearly deserves a serious airing. But on our Sunday morning talk shows, tsetse-fly hosts rush from question to question. There's almost nothing a guest can say that will ever be challenged or critiqued.

Do Bush's budget numbers add up? Weeks ago, the Dems said they don't. Capable hosts should examine the question. Russert—every pol's pal, accepting all answers—doesn't seem up to the task.

Tomorrow: On Sundays, you don't have to answer the questions. It was proven two summers ago.


The occasional update (3/15/01)

Tim's list: Russert's string of questions:

Question 1 (to John Edwards): Is bipartisanship dead in the Senate?
Question 2 (to Phil Gramm): Will the top rate come down to 33%, or will it really just drop to 35?
Question 3 (Gramm): Any chance that capital gains tax rates will be reduced too?
Question 4 (to Evan Bayh): Would the tax cut really cost the treasury $2.6 trillion?
Question 5 (to George Allen): Would the cut really cost $2.6 trillion?
Question 6 (Allen): Do you favor a trigger?
Question 7 (Edwards): Do you favor a trigger?
Question 8 (Gramm): Does the cut give too much to the top one percent?
Question 9 (Bayh): Is Bush's four percent spending increase too low?
Question 10 (Bayh): Was last year's eight percent spending increase too high?
Question 11 (Allen): What's wrong with a trigger?
Question 12 (Allen): Which spending programs would get cut under Bush?
Question 13 (Gramm): What if the surpluses don't materialize?
Question 14 (Bayh): You can't squeeze out $1.6 trillion in the next ten years?
Question 15 (Allen): If the economy is slowing down, why take a chance on a tax cut?

That penultimate question was really the good one. Here it is, as asked:

RUSSERT: Senator Bayh, Congress will spend $22 trillion over the next 10 years. You can't squeeze out $1.6 trillion for a tax cut?

Hay-yo! Senator Bayh was polite, as always. But ten questions earlier, he had already said that the cut would really cost 2.6.