Networks Cite Imaginary “Cuts” as Federal Budget Continues to Soar

Federal spending has soared 33 percent since 2001 and will continue to surge under President Bush’s budget proposal released Monday afternoon, yet network reporters referred to imaginary “cuts” in programs and departments. On World News Tonight, ABC’s Martha Raddatz outlined Bush’s proposal to increase defense and homeland security spending before she asked: “How to pay for all this? There are no tax increases. Instead, there are a host of spending reductions. On top of the list: Slowing spending on Medicare by $36 billion through 2011." While she at least said “slowing spending,” the on-screen graphic falsely stated about Medicare: "Reduced by $36 billion by 2011.” She went on to recount how “the budget calls for doing away with or making substantial cuts in 141 programs for a saving of $15 billion,” a minuscule amount, zeroing in on how “one-third of the cuts would target education, reducing money for the arts, parent resource centers and drug-free school programs.”

New CBS White House correspondent Jim Axelrod, like NBC’s Kelly O’Donnell, at least pointed out that the $2.77 trillion proposed budget is a “record” high. Axelrod, however, cited “education, cut 28 percent; Housing and Urban Development, cut 30 percent” and “$36 billion in Medicare cuts over the next five years.” The NBC Nightly News minimized the false "cut" talk, but Kelly O'Donnell did ask: "Where are the cuts? Mr. Bush asks Congress to slice $65 billion over five years to entitlement programs."

In fact, the Heritage Foundation’s Brian Reidl pointed out in a Monday report (PDF) that “anti-poverty spending has surged 39% under President Bush to a record 16% of all federal spending” while “entitlement spending is projected to nearly double over the next decade.” Spending on education “has soared 137 percent between 2001 and 2006.” Page 142 of the OMB’s budget document (PDF) projects that Medicare spending will skyrocket from $337,885 billion in 2006 to $488,917 billion in 2011, a 77 percent nominal hike in the annual level totalling $755 billion over five years -- hardly a “$36 billion cut.” As for Axelrod’s 30 percent “cut” at HUD, the Washington Post reported a much smaller actual reduction: “The budget requests $33.6 billion, a decrease of nearly 2 percent (1.8%) from 2006.”

The print media are no better. “Bush's $2.77 Trillion Budget Plan Calls for Medicare Cuts,” an inaccurate headline declared over a New York Times article, by David Sanger, posted Monday afternoon.

Those uninitiated to the federal budget process would think spending will actually be reduced on the listed programs.

The problem with this kind of shoddy reporting -- which matches both the interests of the White House, which is trying to show fiscal responsibility, and the news media, since it can be used to paint a Republican President and Congress as heartless toward the less-fortunate -- is that it’s based on adjustments to projections and not real spending levels. So, to use a simple and relatively small number, if a program is now allocated $1 million and it was expected to get a four percent increase of $40,000 to $1,040,000, but the budget proposes a three percent hike to $1,030,000, that’s reported not accurately as a three percent increase (or, if inflation is running at 3.5 percent, half a percent below inflation), but ridiculously as a “25 percent cut” (4 percent to 3 percent.)

How else to explain the ludicrous Washington Post table, posted Monday afternoon, which claims a negative 63 “percent change” in spending for the Department of Energy. But don’t expect half the employees to be laid off. Another graph on the same page, “Spending by Category: FY 2005 vs. FY 2006,” displays an actual spending increase for the Department of Energy. In fact, the graph shows actual spending hikes, most big enough to most-likely be well beyond inflation, for “Medicare,” “health,” “income security” and “transportation.”

Transcripts of the February 6 ABC and CBS evening newscast stories:

# ABC’s World News Tonight:
Anchor Charles Gibson: “This was federal budget day in Washington. President Bush sent four huge volumes to Capitol Hill, outlining $2.77 trillion in spending for next year [on screen graphic noted 2.3 percent spending increase]. That means the government proposes to spend more than $9,000 for every single person in America. The billions and trillions get so big they become hard to comprehend. So, what does Washington watch most closely? Which parts of the government get increases and which parts get cut? Here's our White House correspondent Martha Raddatz. Martha?”

Raddatz: “The President is proposing a seven percent increase in defense spending, with more than $439 billion set aside for new war fighting equipment, including fighter jets, destroyers, unmanned aircraft, to monitor terrorist activity, and 14,000 additional special forces personnel. This budget does not include $120 billion that the White House is expected to request in coming weeks to fund the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq.”

Josh Bolten, OMB Director: “The President has committed to provide our fighting men and women what they need to prosecute this war correctly and as safely as they possibly can.”

Raddatz: “Homeland Security gets an eight percent increase, including $838 million in new counter-terrorism grants for high-risk cities. Money for 1,500 new agents to patrol the nation's borders. And $935 million to modernize Coast Guard vessels. How do pay for all this? There are no tax increases. Instead, there are a host of spending reductions. On top of the list: Slowing spending on Medicare by $36 billion through 2011.” [On screen graphic falsely stated Medicare “Reduced by $36 billion by 2011"]

Bolten: “We do not need to cut Medicare. But we do need to slow its growth. And this budget begins to do just that.”

U.S. Rep. John Spratt (D): “We are coming down on those who need health care the most and those who have it the least.”

Raddatz: “The budget calls for doing away with or making substantial cuts in 141 programs for a saving of $15 billion. One-third of the cuts [list on screen] would target education, reducing money for the arts, parent resource centers and drug-free school programs. And $16 billion would be saved over the next five years in the government's pension insurance program. None of this will come even close to balancing the budget, Charlie. The federal deficit is now estimated to be $423 billion.”

Gibson: “And counting. Martha Raddatz at the White House.”


# CBS Evening News:
Anchor Bob Schieffer: “The numbers have become so staggering they have no real meaning but the President sent Congress a budget plan today that basically calls for two things. It increases spending to fight terrorists and it squeezes many domestic programs. Jim Axelrod is at the White House tonight with more on it and what it really means, Jim?”

Axelrod: “Well, Bob, it's a record high spending proposal for next year: $2.77 trillion. And that's on top of a record high budget deficit this year. Still the President says he's right on track to cut the deficit in half by 2009. The basic idea is to spend more on defense and homeland security and reduce the growth of spending -- in some cases flat out cutting it -- just about everywhere else. Homeland Security is up nearly ten percent, Defense up seven percent.”

Scott McClellan: “We are a nation at war. We're going to fund our troops, both in Iraq and Afghanistan and elsewhere.”

Axelrod: “Topping the list of just about everywhere else, education, cut 28 percent; Housing and Urban Development, cut 30 percent. The President is selling slower spending coupled with growth produced by his tax cuts, to cut the deficit in half. But many in Congress may not be buying, having watched the national debt increase $2.5 trillion on the President's watch.”

Senator Kent Conrad: “This budget is utterly detached from any financial reality. Just keep running up the debt. Just keep adding it to the charge card. Just keep mortgaging the future.”

Axelrod concluded: “And it’s the immediate future that may well determine how this budget is handled on the Hill. Nine months from now the entire House and a third of the Senate is up for election. Now who wants to go home during campaign season and try to sell a budget that's got, say, $36 billion in Medicare cuts over the next five years. Bob?”

Brent Baker
Brent Baker
Brent Baker is the Steven P.J. Wood Senior Fellow and VP for Research and Publications at the Media Research Center