Distortions abound as conservatives lauded Bush's "lean" budget


Conservative media figures greeted President Bush's 2006 budget proposal with distortions and omissions designed to support Bush's message that his budget is "lean" and imposes "spending restraint across the Federal Government." In fact, Bush's budget increases overall federal spending by 3.6 percent, and its much-hyped cuts in "non-security" discretionary spending (i.e., discretionary spending excluding defense and homeland security) -- while they will certainly inflict pain on the constituencies they target -- amount to only 0.12 percent of overall federal spending.

A February 8 Washington Times article by senior White House correspondent Bill Sammon reported: "By reducing funds to such programs as Amtrak, the government would save about $20 billion in 2006 alone." Indeed, the White House budget director Joshua Bolten claimed in a February 7 press briefing that cuts to 150 discretionary programs, including Amtrak, will save $20 billion in 2006. But when a reporter asked for a list, Bolten declined to provide one, noting only that "[a] lot of it is inter-lineated throughout the budget. We will have some material for you." The truth is that Bush has proposed reducing all "non-security" discretionary spending (i.e., discretionary spending apart from defense and homeland security), which includes Amtrak, by only $3 billion in fiscal year 2006 compared to FY 2005, while increasing overall spending.

On FOX News' Special Report with Brit Hume, chief Washington correspondent Jim Angle reported: "The Bush administration has been steadily nipping spending increases every year since it inherited a 15 percent increase in the last Clinton budget. This year, it seeks about a 1 percent real cut outside security spending by taking aim at programs such as Amtrak." Angle took this claim directly from a highly misleading page in Bush's budget. He also displayed an accompanying graphic from that page (shown below). Angle's exclusive focus on "non-security" spending appeared specifically intended to portray Bush as an aggressive deficit cutter.

This chart is grossly misleading. First, the numbers exclude supplemental appropriations in 2001-06 (see Table S-2 [p.4] ), including $14 billion worth in 2002. Second, the chart conceals the fact that prior to 2001, nondefense discretionary spending was virtually flat in the early and mid-1990s. By 2000, tax revenues were plentiful due to a booming economy, so the country could arguably afford to spend more on nondefense programs ("non-security" discretionary spending figures -- which exclude homeland security as well as defense -- are not available before 2001) in the following year's budget. But in fiscal year 2000, which the White House omitted from the graph that Angle showed, Clinton signed a budget that reduced nondefense discretionary spending by 3 percent; by contrast, in 2005, "non-security" spending increased by at least 18 percent. Finally, "non-security" spending accounts for only 15 percent of overall federal spending and less than half (46 percent) of discretionary spending in Bush's proposed budget, so even if the White House chart was accurate, it would prove little about Bush's commitment to controlling overall spending. Below is a chart showing changes in discretionary spending from 1998-2005, including supplemental spending:*

Source: Budget of the United States Government, Fiscal Year 2006, Historical Tables, 8-9--Budget Authority for Discretionary Programs (Excel document); Summary Tables, table S-2*

On the February 8 edition of Special Report, chief White House correspondent Carl Cameron described Bush's budget as "the first budget proposal since the Reagan era to call for actual spending cuts." In fact, as explained above, Bush's proposed budget increases overall spending. It is merely the first since Reagan to propose cutting "non-security" discretionary spending. But such spending accounts for only 15 percent of the total budget and Bush's budget proposes cutting less than 1 percent of that 15 percent fraction (or 0.12 percent of total spending). Both Clinton and President George H.W. Bush proposed and signed budgets that included "actual budget cuts" in military spending (see, for example, 1992, 1993, and 1996 (Excel document)). Indeed, the 1992 and 1993 cuts in defense spending of $33 billion and $23 billion, respectively, were substantially larger than Bush's proposed $3 billion cut in "non-security" spending.

* Media Matters calculated the data for nondefense spending (purple bars 1998-2000) by subtracting spending for "National Defense" from "Total Discretionary Budget Authority" on White House budget table 8-9 (Excel document) and, for "non-security" (purple bars 2001-05) spending, further subtracting the sum of regular and supplemental homeland security appropriations for 2001-2005 as listed on White House budget table S-2. This method actually overstates spending in the Clinton years, since homeland security figures before 2001 are unavailable to be further subtracted from nondefense spending. Moreover, Media Matters' calculations of "non-security" spending likely understate these expenditures in 2001-05. That's because the "National Defense" category in table 8-9 covers some "defense" spending outside the Department of Defense, probably including some spending classified on table S-2 as "homeland security." Thus, by subtracting both "National Defense" (table 8-9) and "Homeland Security" (table S-2) from "Total Discretionary Budget Authority" (table 8-9), some expenditures were probably subtracted twice, producing a lower total for "non-security" spending in 2001-05.

Update 2/28/05: Year 2005 added to chart showing discretionary spending change chart. Punctuation and clarifying phrase "in the following year's budget" added to fourth paragraph.

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Economy, Budget
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