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Fuzzy Math

The New York Times recently reported on its front page that President Bush wants to increase Department of Education spending by 11.5 percent next fiscal year. The Washington Post said the same thing, as did other news outlets.

No surprise there. The 11.5 percent figure is often repeated by Bush officials. Except, that is, when they say the actual increase is more like 6 percent.

It all started in February, when the White House press office began to leak the 11.5 percent number in anticipation of releasing President Bush's budget. Nearly all news organizations reported that figure, noting that it would be a hefty increase.

When the preliminary budget document came out a week later, it emphasized the 11.5 percent figure—the increase in "budget authority"—but also noted that the actual increase proposed was 5.9 percent, or $2.5 billion.

The difference is significant politically, of course, because a double-digit hike for children bolsters Mr. Bush's "compassion" credentials.

No one disputes the overall discretionary-spending level: $44.5 billion. The confusion comes over what baseline to compare it against.

For the White House to say 11.5 percent, it must exclude from last year's point of comparison about $2.1 billion already appropriated by Congress. That money, called "advance appropriations," cannot be spent until Oct. 1, the beginning of the next fiscal year. It's an accounting gimmick used to get around budget caps.

Secretary of Education Rod Paige kept up the confusion when, during a press conference, he uttered both figures. The department's budget book, breaking with past practice, also emphasized both numbers, though it made clear that the total appropriation increase would be 5.9 percent.

Using the Bush approach of highlighting the "budget authority" hike, the year before saw an increase of a very compassionate $10.6 billion. And that would be news to just about everyone in Washington.

—Erik W. Robelen [email protected]

Vol. 20, Issue 32, Page 26

Published in Print: April 25, 2001, as Federal File

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