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Congressional Budget Dishonesty

President Obama made headlines last month when he announced a budget wishlist eliminating a number of budget gimmicks used by Washington policymakers to, in effect, purposefully lie to the country about how much the government will collect and spend.

Breaking from previous administrations, Obama’s budget acknowledged that fighting the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan will actually cost money; it conceded that big pay cuts for doctors treating Medicare patients would never be realized; it admitted that tens-of-billions of dollars in revenues generated by the alternative minimum tax would never be collected because Congress steps in each year to prevent millions of middle class families from paying the tax. (This year, the AMT patch arrived in the stimulus bill — at a cost of $70 billion. All of it borrowed.) And, rather than projecting the figures out for only five years (like President George W. Bush made a habit of doing), Obama’s budget looked 10 years ahead, to lend a better picture of the fiscal imbalances that loom further down the road.

Leave it to Congress to bring some of those gimmicks back.

Both Senate Budget Committee Chairman Kent Conrad (D-N.D.) and House Budget Committee Chairman John Spratt (D-S.C.) this week are considering spending proposals of their own, rife with some of the very tallying dishonesties that have plagued the past. An editorial in The Washington Post today has a concise rundown.

The congressional budgets, The Post points out, look ahead only five years. They eliminate $250 billion included in Obama’s budget for more Wall Street bailouts, though the lawmakers “have no reason to believe it won’t be needed.” And Spratt acknowledges only one year of funding for the AMT patch — not the required five — while Conrad includes only three years of AMT money. The Post offers an explanation:

There’s no mystery as to the motivation for this dishonesty. Like Mr. Obama, the Democrats in Congress want to spend more on education, energy and other popular programs. Like Mr. Obama, they don’t want to level with voters about the need to pay for such programs through increased taxes. According to the CBO, Mr. Obama’s budget plan would have the government spending more than 23 percent of gross domestic product throughout the second half of this decade while collecting less than 19 percent in revenue. Rather than fix this problem, Mr. Conrad in his budget proposal closes his eyes and wishes it away.

Last month, Conrad said Obama’s plan “is a more accurate reflection” of federal spending than past budgets, and he went after GOP critics for “things that the other side is not counting at all,” pointing specifically to the AMT patch.

Conrad also gave a curious answer when asked specifically if the AMT fix should be offset:

I believe extending the alternative minimum tax past the next couple of years should be offset. And I have taken that position consistently. I don’t think it should be offset at this time of severe economic weakness. I think that would be counterproductive. But beyond the next couple of years, when we are now seeing forecasts from CBO and OMB of economic recovery, at that point, I think it should be offset.

Instead he did just the opposite, funding the AMT for three years before abandoning it later.

Both the House and Senate budget panels have plans to pass their proposals out of committee today, with the full chambers expected to consider them next week.

Experts have pointed out that real change in Washington comes only in times of severe crisis. At least as it pertains to budgets, it seems that the current crisis isn’t severe enough yet.

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