14 September 1999
Extra!: The major parties new surplus
Synopsis: In todays Post, Eric Pianin shows us how silly it gets when we pretend that we have a real surplus.
GOP Seeks to Ease Crunch With 13-Month Fiscal Year
Eric Pianin, The Washington Post, 9/14/99
Clinton Aides Say He Would Veto Tax-Cut Compromise With GOP
William Branigin, The Washington Post, 7/26/99
Incredible! In the Washington Post's lead story this morning,
Eric Pianin describes the latest effort to pretend we have a non-SS
PIANIN: As they struggle to live within tough restrictions
on how much they may spend, Senate Republicans may have found
another creative way to shoehorn popular domestic programs into
next year's budget: declaring the coming fiscal year 13 months
long instead of the usual 12.
The "usual" 12? Has the number of months jumped around
now and then, and we just failed to notice? Pianin quotes Senator
Arlen Specter (P-PA), acknowledging a bit of smoke and mirrors.
But nothing seems to faze the Post scribe, who swiftly goes on
to write this:
PIANIN: The proposalwhich has been embraced by Senate leadershighlights
how difficult it is for congressional Republicans to cut spending
and live within tight budgets without resorting to what many
experts describe as fiscal gimmickry.
What many experts describe as fiscal gimmickry? Let's
see if we understand this. We're now saying the 2000 census is
an emergency, and the year 2000 is thirteen months longand the
Washington Post has to check with experts to see if fiscal gimmickry
is involved? Do you see how silly our discourse gets, when we
refuse to call a spade a spadewhen we start pretending the government
is awash in surpluses, because the two parties have agreed that
they'll say so?
Over the course of the past several months, we've complained
about the press corps' refusal to deal frankly with the surplus
projections (for full links, see below). When President Clinton
announced new projections in June, one paper after another came
forward with analyses, pointing out the obvious problem with the
non-SS projections. The OMB and the CBO were projecting a $1 trillion
surplus, over ten years, in the operating budget of the federal
government. But as these analyses pointed outagain and againthose
projections were based on spending caps agreed to in the 1997
Balanced Budget Agreement. And expert after expert agreedthe
spending caps were so low that there was no chance they would
ever be met. If government spending increases at the rate of inflation,
the "surplus" simply doesn't exist.
The Washington Post was quick to point this out, in its July
5 lead editorial. But, in a trend we observed all through the
media, the Post's reporters soon stopped mentioning this glaring
problem in their coverage of the budget negotiations. All over
the media, writers wrote of the "age of surpluses,"
although everyone knew that the non-SS surplus was a hoax. For
example, here is William Branigin, in the Post, three weeks after
the paper's editorial:
BRANIGIN: The battle...revolves around what to do with a projected
budget surplus of $1 trillion over the next 10 years. The Republicans
want to give the bulk of it back to taxpayers through tax cuts.
The administration wants to set aside most of it to eliminate
the national debt by 2015, save Social Security and Medicare and
fund major domestic priorities.
A reader has no way of knowing what Branigin must knowthat
this "projected budget surplus" is based on future spending
levels that will in fact never be met. He writes as if the projections
are soundeven though his own paper, and numerous others, had
long since explained they are not. All throughout the major media,
writers began to write stories like thisdeclining to cite the
most obvious fact about this crucial discussion.
And why did writers write like thisignoring the elephant in
the room? They wrote like this because both major parties are
pretending the surplus exists. Branigin, for example, immediately
quoted Senator John Breaux on the subject:
BRANIGIN: "If we don't get together, we're headed for
a major train wreck...," Breaux [D-LA] said on "Face the
Nation." "Here we have a trillion-dollar surplus, and
the two political parties in Washington can't figure out what
to do with it. Only in Washington could you have that kind of
Breaux engaged in familiar pandering, shaking his head over
Washington's ways. But surely Branigin must have known that we
do not "have a trillion-dollar surplus." But
then, so did the panel on Face the Nation, though no one
asked Breaux to address the problemthat he advocated returning
a surplus to the American people which almost surely will never
exist. (Breaux supported the $792 billion tax cut.)
All over the press corps, the scribes have deferred to the
power of the two major parties. The parties have agreed to pretend
that the surplus exists, because the surplus makes fabulous politics.
The GOP is using the phantom surplus to offer voters an impressive
tax cut. The Democrats offer expanded Medicare, which they would
fund with the phantom moneys. But have you seen a single journalist
ask a politician to speak to the well-defined problemthe fact
that the projected surplus only exists if Congress sticks to impossible
And now we see the first, tiny conflict, even before big future
cuts are required. Congress is adding a month to the year to try
to work its way past this first mess. And are newspapers telling
you what you should knowthat this is just the beginning of a
lengthy charade, whose end is already perfectly known? Nothey're
calling up experts to let them know if the 13-month year is a
As we've explained, the press corps knuckled to GOP pressure
when it misreported Medicare in 1995-96. This time, the parties
agreed on a fiscal game. Did you really think that the
timorous press would dare say it?
Visit our incomparable archives: Last month, we saluted
the Post (and other papers) who explained that the surplus is
a hoax. See THE DAILY HOWLER, 8/17/99, 8/20/99, and 8/23/99.
A week later, we pointed out that scribes were no longer mentioning
the problem with the surplus projections. See THE DAILY HOWLER,
8/27/99. See Calchas' speech to swift runner Achilles in our incomparable postscript.
Last week, Dick Armey spun the surplus on Meet the Press.
Stone Phillips didn't even say "Boo." See THE DAILY
Tomorrow: In our postponed "Current howler (part
IV)," we explore the granddaddy of all bungled basics. We
visit the corps as it tries to explain the long-term problem with