Wag That Tail, Fido; It’s July

When it comes to reporting on the federal budget deficit, the White House's budget minders never get tired of trying to spin the press. Will it work again?

We all know that you can’t teach an old dog new tricks, but it turns out you also can’t get him to drop his old tricks. Especially, when the dog in question is the White House’s Office of Management and Budget (OMB). And the trick in question is OMB’s deeply-ingrained reflex of eagerly wagging its tail — perhaps “frantically spinning” is the better description — every time it reports on the federal budget deficit.

To wit: On Tuesday, Robert Portman the head of the OMB is expected to release the annual mid-session forecast on the federal budget deficit.

According to various news reports in recent days, Portman’s announcement will be brimming with good news—specifically, the news that, thanks to increasing tax revenue from an increasingly healthy economy, the federal budget deficit will be significantly lower in 2006 than OMB’s own predictions made earlier this year.

“The White House Office of Management and Budget is expected to announce Tuesday that, because of the increased tax receipts, the deficit will be about $100 billion less than what was projected six months ago,” Bloomberg News reported.

Sound familiar? It should.

That’s more or less the exact trick the OMB trotted out for the media this time last year. Witness the following account in the Financial Times from July 2005.

“After several years of embarrassing budget figures, the Bush administration yesterday had good news to report,” noted the Times. “The administration, which released its mid-session budget review yesterday, boosted its forecasts for tax revenues following stronger than expected tax receipts to date in the fiscal year that ends in September.”

“It cut its forecast for the fiscal 2005 budget deficit to Dollars 333bn…less than the forecast it released in February and a sharp reduction from the Dollars 412bn deficit in 2004,” added the Times.

That announcement, in turn, came on the heels of the OMB’s cheerful forecast one year earlier that the federal budget deficit in 2004 was turning out to be significantly less than—surprise, surprise—earlier predictions.

“And today, the White House unveiled its midsession budget review estimates,” reported NPR in July 2004. “It showed a budget deficit of $445 billion for this year, up from 374 billion in fiscal 2003. But Joshua Bolten, President Bush’s budget director, presented it as good news because it’s $76 billion less than the White House projected in February.”

In recent years, many media outlets simply ran with the OMB’s cheerful mid-session reports—tossing in plenty of laudatory quotes from presidential supporters praising the deficit “reduction” as vindication that the administration’s fiscal policies were now turning a corner.

“These new numbers offer 94 billion examples of tax cuts at work, supporting economic growth and deficit reduction,” Pat Toomey, president of the Club for Growth told the Financial Times after the “good news” in 2005. “Once again we are seeing the proof that supply-side economics work.”

Not to mention proof that the OMB officials aren’t shy about reverting to their favorite political ploy, year after year after year.

Recently, however, journalists appear to be catching on. As we noted previously, the Washington Post’s Jonathan Weisman did a nice job of calling out the White House back in January when it released its predictably gloomy budget-deficit projections for the current fiscal year.

“This is the third straight year in which the White House has summoned reporters well ahead of the official budget release to project a higher-than-anticipated deficit,” reported Weisman at the time. “In the past two years, when final deficit figures have come in at record or near-record levels, White House officials have boasted that they had made progress, since the final numbers were below estimates.”

Make that three years in a row.

Let’s hope that this time around more reporters will follow Weisman’s lead and call out the OMB’s “good news” about the federal budget deficit for what it really is—a dog and pony show. And a tired, predictable one, at that.

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Felix Gillette writes about the media for The New York Observer.