When you read a story headlined “Bush Expected to Seek Near-Freeze in Spending,” you might be expecting to read a story about, well, about a near-freeze in federal spending.

No such luck with this Reuters story. The lead begins walking things back immediately:

President Bush is expected to propose what amounts to a freeze in spending in programs outside national security in a bid to show he is serious about meeting his goal to reduce the deficit, congressional aides and budget experts said on Thursday.

So, national security spending isn’t included in this proposed spending freeze. It turns out, the article says, that the freeze isn’t actually a “freeze” per se, but rather a plan to hold “non-defense, non-homeland security discretionary spending within a narrow range.”

What’s more, a few paragraphs down, the piece abruptly pulls a U-turn, telling us “The belt-tightening will, however, extend to the Pentagon and homeland security. A Pentagon budget plan calls for reducing previously budgeted weapons purchases by $6 billion in fiscal 2006, which begins Oct. 1, and by nearly $30 billion through 2011.” If you’re confused, you’re not alone — that doesn’t sound like much of an exception for national security to us.

It only gets worse. Walking back the lead still further, we next learn that the freeze doesn’t apply to a few other specific categories of spending. We’re reminded that if the president’s Social Security privatization plan ends up passing Congress this year, he’s going to have to start borrowing heavily — at least $1 trillion — to finance the transition costs, so that’s out, too. But wait. It seems that the president might not cut spending at all, and in fact he might institute “an increase of less than 0.8 percent,” which would technically be a cut if inflation remains at the projected 2 percent. Or it may turn out to be a spending increase, if inflation fluctuates. And we’re told that the fiscal belt-tightening “will not include the skyrocketing cost of military operations in Iraq and Afghanistan. Instead he will submit a supplemental budget request in February or March totaling between $80 billion and $100 billion.”

By this time, Reuters has walked the dog all the way back into the doghouse.

But it isn’t done yet. Finally, the piece tells us that “Bush has vowed to cut the record federal budget deficit in half by 2009, a goal Democrats and some Republican lawmakers are skeptical he can meet.” But what you don’t learn is that, as the New York Times reported last Sunday, the White House’s claim is based on an imaginary number: a year-old projection of what the deficit would be in 2004, rather than the Congressional Budget Office’s current projection — giving himself a free $100 billion head start on reaching his goal.

Paul McLeary

Paul McLeary is senior editor of Defense Technology International magazine, and is a former CJR staffer.