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20 March 2001

Our current howler (part III): Hat trick

Synopsis: Does President Bush’s tax cut add up? With Russert, you’ll never find out.

Commentary by Tim Russert, Larry Lindsey
Meet the Press, NBC, 3/18/01

When President Bush proposed his tax cut, the Democrats said that it doesn't add up. Here are the things that they said:

  1. If you protect the Social Security surplus, the projected $5.6 trillion budget surplus drops to $3.1 trillion.
  2. If you protect the Medicare surplus, the projected surplus drops to $2.7 trillion.
  3. But the tax cut will really reduce the surplus by $2.6 trillion (allowing for tax extenders, AMT, retroactivity, and interest costs).
  4. The available surplus is $2.7 trillion. The tax cut alone costs $2.6 trillion. That leaves nothing more for other needs. Therefore, the tax cut just doesn't add up.

There are other ways to lay out the numbers. But if the tax cut really will cost $2.6 trillion, it's hard to dispute the Democrats' claim—the Bush's budget really doesn't add up.

In a rational world, we'd try to learn if the Democrats' claim is correct. But one thing is clear; on Meet the Press, you simply will never find out. This Sunday—yes, that's right, for the third straight week—Tim Russert posted the Democrats' charts on the actual cost of the tax cut (see below). He was interviewing Bush budget aide Larry Lindsey. Here's what the hapless host said:

RUSSERT: Let me turn to the Bush tax cut as it was proposed and put it on the screen for you. The true costs of the Bush tax cut—this is according to the Senate Democrats—the $1.6 trillion pledge, making it retroactive would be an additional $0.2 trillion. The alternative minimum tax reform's necessary. Otherwise after 10 years, they say, one out of every three taxpayers would actually have a tax increase by being pushed into higher tax brackets. Tax extenders: those are benefits that people get for education and so forth, which will be naturally extended. And interest costs: that is, which would go up because the debt would not be retired as quickly, if, in fact, there was no tax cut. They say the true cost of the Bush tax plan is $2.6 trillion.

Russert had listed the four basic add-ons which Democrats say drive up the cut's cost. Having done so, he finished his statement:

RUSSERT (continuing directly): I'm going to give you a chance to respond. I want to show you another chart, and we'll talk about it in totality. And they say the problem is if you have a projected surplus of $5.6 trillion and you take away money for Social Security, the so-called lockbox as you referred to it, that reduces the surplus to $3.1 trillion. Medicare lockbox trust fund, it reduces the surplus to $2.7 trillion over 10 years. Again, all projected. And if the Bush tax cut plan, fully implemented, is $2.6 trillion and the costs of Social Security and Medicare leaves only $2.7 trillion, you have practically nothing left for education, defense or any other increases the president wants.

There! This was the third straight Sunday on which Russert had posed this question to a Republican guest (see links below). Would Russert get an answer to his question this time? Is the sky really green? Do fish like to skateboard? Lindsey began his reply:

LINDSEY: We would prefer to use the Congressional Budget Office or OMB's scoring than the partisan scoring you just presented. The numbers are these: $5.6 trillion left over after government spends over $ 22 trillion in the next decade—

Lindsey had just started his answer. Incredibly, without letting him go any further, Russert broke in—with a new, different question!
RUSSERT (continuing directly): Now are you guaranteeing that surplus?

At THE HOWLER, we couldn't believe our eyes. Lindsey took on the new question:

LINDSEY (continuing directly): Ten-year forecasts are always subject to question. What I can guarantee is that the assumptions behind that are very cautious. For example, we assume 3-percent growth. That is below the average of post-war history. That is below where blue chip consensus is. That is below, where we are assuming, based on productivity numbers.

RUSSERT: What's our growth right now?

LINDSEY: The growth rate in the last five years was almost 4.

RUSSERT: But right now.

LINDSEY: Right now we're probably, as you pointed out, is 1.1. But notice, that's one quarter. We're talking about a 10-year forecast.

Etcetera, and so forth, and so on. By the way, have you noticed one key thing? We're no longer discussing the cost of the tax cut! Incredibly, after asking about the true cost of the cut, Russert let Lindsey utter just 36 words before interrupting him with a completely new question. The discussion never got back to the original query. (We stress—the change in topic was all Russert's doing. Lindsey bears none of the blame.)

For three straight Sundays, Russert has posted the Democrats' chart about the cost of the tax cut. For three straight weeks, he has asked a guest to comment on the Democrats' claims. The first week, Paul O'Neill had to squirm and dodge, but in the end, he ate Russert for lunch (see "Lunch meat," 3/8/01). But on Sunday, no ducking or dodging was needed; Russert now changes the subject himself. Here at THE HOWLER, we just don't know why Russert keeps posting that useless chart. He is simply unable to do his job. In a nation of 280 million souls, it is hard to imagine why such an incompetent hasn't long since been sent out to pasture.

The Democrats raised a serious question. In a rational world, it should be addressed. But this is the world of the celebrity press corps. Readers, surrender your dreams of a rational discourse. Instead, gaze with wonder on the world that exists—on Tim Russert, NBC's King Incompetent.

Next: Answering budget questions on Sunday shows has been passé since July '99.

Visit our incomparable archives: On March 4, Paul O'Neill ate Russert for lunch. See THE DAILY HOWLER, 3/6/01, 3/7/01, 3/8/01.

On March 11, Russert's attention span problems let Allen escape. See THE DAILY HOWLER, 3/15/01.

Again, that infernal chart:

($ 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