Presidential budget proposals usually are about two things, politics and mathematics. Both elements carry equal weight.
For example, if the politics are right, the math can be wrong.
President Bush’s 2003 Medicare drug benefit embodied terrible math, a 10-year, $400 billion tab that now is north of $720 billion.
But the politics, 2004 re-election, was A-OK.
At other times math, not politics, delivers. Bill Clinton used solid budget numbers to shove his mid-1990s welfare-to-work win down Democratic throats.
Losing the point. The point is that one or the other is necessary to convince Congress – and more importantly, the American public – of the need for change.
That simple point, however, has been lost on the Bush administration. Its broader 2006 budget proposals and narrower USDA spending plans contain neither compelling politics nor convincing math.
Excluding. Overall, the 2006 White House budget is a hall of cracked mirrors noted more for what it excludes – $80 billion for Iraq and Afghanistan, the 10-year, $1 trillion “transition cost” of its Social Security reform plan, $1.2 trillion in tax cuts – than what it includes, like slicing $5.7 billion out of USDA over the next decade.
When asked why the administration did not include the costs of the war in its 2006 numbers, White House budget director Josh Bolten explained that it “wouldn’t be responsible for us to take a guess at what those costs are.”
A moment later, that lie was exposed when reporters asked why then the 2006 budget included estimated federal revenue from oil wells drilled in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, a Bush plan Congress has repeatedly rejected.
‘Whoppers.’ The White House makes a habit of such whoppers. The 2006 USDA budget again pencils in an “additional $139 million in user fees” the department annually, magically imposes on meatpackers.
Trouble is, Congress must approve the change and so for – in four out of the previous four Bush budgets – Congress has said, “Ain’t never gonna happen.”
Nor, say other farm group lobbyists, will other big-ticket items on the 2006 White House budget menu for USDA.
Replacing the current soft cap of $360,000 in maximum farm program benefits per year with a hard cap of $250,000?
“We advocated for it when the 2002 farm bill was being written,” says one Democratic-leaning farm lobbyist, “but there’s no way that that one gets passed by either ag committee. None. D (pause) O (pause) A.”
Explanation, please? Cutting today’s Loan Deficiency Payments (LDPs) on every bushel and every pound now produced to “making marketing assistance loans based on historical production” as proposed by the White House Feb. 7?
When Keith Collins, USDA’s chief economist, was asked about that language in the budget briefing, explains an industry lobbyist, “He said it was possible to base LDPs on direct payments or yields and acres or even limit future LDP payments to just 60 to 65 percent of 2004 production.”
Those ideas would move ag policy “right back to Freedom to Farm, a nightmare,” opines the lobbyist. “This isn’t boldness; it’s just dishonesty.”
Over and over.’‘ In rounds on Capitol Hill the day after the budget proposal was released, adds this insider, “Every staff member we met, Republican and Democrat alike, was really (angry). Asking for budget cuts is one thing, we heard over and over, but the policy changes here are just weird.”
The Senate’s biggest Republican ag hitters telegraphed that to the White House shortly after the 2,500-page budget tome hit their farm producers.
Ag Committee Chairman Saxby Chambliss, R-Ga., noted that “as for as I’m concerned, we don’t have to make any changes in the (2002) farm bill.”
Former ag chairman and now appropriations boss Thad Cochran, R-Miss., grumbled about the “basic unfairness,” of the proposed policy shifts.
Clear message. The message from these farm Republicans is clear: White House budget numbers are so phony that most don’t even merit a committee hearing.
The administration has one fan, though, Secretary of Agriculture Mike Johanns. “I am absolutely supportive of the president’s budget, every piece and part and detail,” he said Feb. 7.
Great, another White House politician who can’t add.
(Alan Guebert’s Farm and Food File is published weekly in more than 75 newspapers in North America. He can be contacted at email@example.com.)