Give or Take a Few Hundred Billion


The White House now puts the cost of the new Medicare drug benefit that President Bush championed at $720 billion over 10 years. But the administration says it's not fair to compare that figure to the $400 billion price tag it used to sell the program to Congress (which was raised to $534 billion two months after the vote). As The New York Times explains, "The original estimate was for the years 2004 to 2013. The new estimate covers the period from 2006, when the drug benefit becomes available, to 2015." But part of the fraud lay precisely in selecting a range of years that would make the progam look a lot cheaper than it really is. Why else include two years before the program would be up and running?

Bush's opponents will be quick to point out that he's trying something similar with his estimate of the transition costs for adding personal accounts to Social Security, keeping the 10-year estimate low by including years when the accounts are not yet available. Unlike the Medicare drug benefit, this spending will not add to the government's debt over the long term, since it will be balanced by lower spending on benefits when peopled with personal accounts retire. But that fact does not excuse the administration's continued use of tricky numbers, a technique that has earned the public's distrust and will make the task of selling Social Security reform harder rather than easier.