BOB GARFIELD: This is On the Media. I'm Bob Garfield. A few weeks ago, President Bush kicked off the annual game of political football known as the budget process, unveiling a 2.57 trillion dollar spending proposal. It's only the first step. Now it goes to Congress, which will bat it around for a few months, with the help of the Congressional Budget Office. Meanwhile, the rest of us, with the help of a small cadre of Washington reporters, will try to make sense of what's going on. Joining us now is Douglas Holtz-Eakin, director of the CBO. Doug, welcome to the show.
DOUGLAS HOLTZ-EAKIN: It's a pleasure to be here.
BOB GARFIELD: Well, let's talk turkey, Doug. From reading the papers, I certainly know what to make of this proposal. It's very lean, or it's deficit-exploding, and it's true to the Republican cause of shrinking government, or the opposite - it's actually growing government. [LAUGHTER] I don't know what to make of it, based on what I've read.
DOUGLAS HOLTZ-EAKIN: [LAUGHS] All of those statements are true from a certain perspective. When the president puts out his budget, it assumes that every single part of his policies - every economic policy - every social policy - is enacted in whole. When the Congress looks at a budget, it begins with the Congressional Budget Office baseline, which assumes no changes in policy, which is to say, nothing that the president puts out has happened. Obviously, there's a great gulf between the two, and the delivery of the numbers by the press in a political environment is a very difficult challenge.
BOB GARFIELD: Well, if everybody's out there spinning, and none of the statistics that are cited by either side can be taken at face value, what is a press to do?
DOUGLAS HOLTZ-EAKIN: You can, in fact, try to come to terms with those numbers which are plausibly too large to be believed, those numbers which are ball park right, and those which are small enough to ignore, and get some sense of what's really on the table. In the current environment, I think the press has made it very clear that among the key elements of the budget picture right now are the costs of the war in Iraq and Afghanistan, where the money is not in the budget, but provided in the supplemental, so you've got to add that in somewhere - they've made it very clear that the president's approach is to keep a very tough line on a certain category of discretionary spending, which is non-defense, non-homeland security, annual appropriations, and I think they've made it very clear that that's not the whole budget picture.
BOB GARFIELD: A lot of reporters, to one degree or another are, because the budget itself is like several phone books thick, are using some of the aids provided magnanimously by the White House to cut through some of the detail into the heart of the budget. In relying on these materials, are they actually misrepresenting certain objective facts from the budget to their readers and viewers?
DOUGLAS HOLTZ-EAKIN: I think it's always better to at least at the beginning spend a little time mucking through the numbers yourself so that you understand what's in them. I'll give you a very particular example that comes up all the time. In the budget process, there are two different concepts - one is known as budget authority - that's money in the pipeline. You want to think of that as sticking money in your checking account, and that's an allowance to spend. And then there are outlays, which is like writing the check out of your checking account - it tells how much you've actually spent. That's the geekiest problem that reporters face. As is well known, in late 1999, 2000, 2001, lots of authority to spend was given - particularly after September 11th. Those bills are now coming due, and so the outlays are coming out now. The authority was given years ago. One group wants to claim there's a tight budget now; another group wants to claim there's a lot of spending now. They can both be true simultaneously. You have to make the comparisons on a fair basis.
BOB GARFIELD: When the president offers a budget that shows growth in all of the major areas of spending and what may or may not be some cuts in the very narrow discretionary part of spending, and still asserts that he is going to cut the deficit in half within a reasonable amount of time, isn't it absurd on the face of it, and if so, what should the press do?
DOUGLAS HOLTZ-EAKIN: Well, I think the press should evaluate the claim at face value - find out what it means to cut the budget deficit in half. Is that in dollars or is that as a fraction of the size of our economy? Right now, the deficit's 3.6 percent of GDP. Does cutting it in half mean coming to 1.8, or right now the deficit's 412 billion dollars in 2004. Does cutting it in half mean you come down to 206 billion dollars? Find a - an objective - find a time period - and then ask someone to connect the dots on the policy. What I would like to see the press do is - take any claim, on either side of the aisle - and first check it against a neutral set of numbers. And, having decided what that claim really has in the way of content versus exaggeration, then pursue the story. Often, that step gets skipped, and they go to the other side for reaction, and it becomes a political story and not really a policy or substantive story that will help the reader understand where the source of real disagreement might lie.
BOB GARFIELD: So let's just pretend, for a moment, that you're not in fact the head of the Congressional Budget Office, but a reporter or an editor. You've seen this document. What's your lead?
DOUGLAS HOLTZ-EAKIN: My lead is: White House Strategy to Cut Deficit - Very Heavy Political Lift - And Even If They Succeed, Big Job Left to Be Done.
BOB GARFIELD: That may be the best summary I've seen so far. Doug, thanks so much for joining me.
DOUGLAS HOLTZ-EAKIN: I do hope this is helpful. I enjoyed it.
BOB GARFIELD: Douglas Holtz-Eakin is director of the Congressional Budget Office, and he has some busy months ahead of him. [MUSIC]