Add it Up: Bush Promises $3 Trillion More in Debt

Jonathan Weisman, writing in the Washington Post today, reports that Kerry’s plan won’t balance the budget.

Sen. John F. Kerry’s pledge to reduce record federal budget deficits is colliding with an obstacle that may be growing higher by the week: his own campaign commitments.

This is true enough. The credibility of Kerry’s pledge to cut the deficit rests on his promise to return to “pay-as-you-go” budgeting, his promise to jettison new programs that can’t be paid for, his reliance on a fiscally responsible economic team, and his own history of deficit-fighting. He hasn’t really made sufficient specific pledges to cut spending or raise taxes.

But it is emphatically not true that Kerry’s proposals are as fiscally irresponsible as Bush’s, which is what Weisman asserts:

A Washington Post review of Kerry’s tax cuts and spending plans, in addition to interviews with campaign staff members and analyses by conservative and liberal experts, suggests that they could worsen the federal budget deficit by nearly as much as President Bush’s agenda.

The problem is that Kerry’s campaign pledges are being compared to Bush’s budget. For a normal administration, a budget proposal would be a stronger commitment than a campaign promise. But Bush is no normal president, and his budgets can’t really be considered promises or commitments.

Let’s compare Kerry’s pledge to repeal Bush’s tax cuts on the rich to Bush’s past budgetary promises. If Kerry is elected, and instead proposes making tax cuts for the rich permanent, he will rightly be accused of breaking a campaign promise. But if Bush’s budget is a promise, then Bush has also promised to eliminate his tax cuts for the rich, and indeed pretty much all his other tax cuts too. In his first and third budgets, these tax cuts were slated to expire at various points over the next decade. Now, in his forth budget, Bush proposes making the tax cuts permanent. Nobody has yet accused him of flip-flopping or breaking a promise. His budgets never really constituted promises: everyone knew he intended to break these commitments if he could.

The same is true of the Bush budget that’s being compared to Kerry’s proposals. It’s not worth the paper it’s printed on either. There are numerous examples of expensive promises Bush has made, that the Post ignores because they aren’t in his budget.

Bush has repeatedly pledged to partially privatize social security. The transition costs of this are in the trillion plus range, but it’s not in his budget. Bush has endorsed permanent Alternative Minimum Tax relief, a $376 billion dollar item over the next ten years. But only the first of the the ten years is in his budget. The Bush administration has also endorsed the grab bag of corporate tax breaks currently being considered in Congress. The CBPP estimates that these giveaways will cost $225 billion over ten years. But it’s not in his budget either.

According to the Post’s “Bottom Line” table, Kerry would increase the deficit by $1.306 trillion, and Bush by $1.352 trillion. But that’s if you trust Bush’s budget and not his promises. Even a casual analysis of three big items on Bush’s current list of goodies for the corporations and the wealthy shows that Bush’s plans would put us at least another $3 trillion in the hole.

So sure, President Kerry may to back away from some of his spending proposals. He’s already said he will if he has to. But Bush has already backed away from the “promises” made in his budget, just as he has backed away from numerous commitments made in earlier budgets. Nobody else in the country takes Bush’s budgets seriously. Why does the Post?