Leave No Ambassador Behind

On Feb. 21, President Bush told teachers and students at Townsend Elementary School in Tennessee that

in the budget I submit, the largest increase of any department will be for the Department of Education.

Six days later, Bush told Congress that

[t]he highest percentage increase in our budget should go to our children’s education.

In both instances, Bush’s apparently sincere pledge prompted spontaneous applause. But when Bush’s budget was released this week, the Education Department did not get the biggest proposed increase, even though CNN and the Associated Press both reported that it did. In truth, calculated by percentage, the biggest proposed budget increase (13.6 percent) went to the State Department. (This is actually quite difficult to find in the OMB’s budget documents, but if you go to this page on the State Department Web site and scroll down to Page 6, you’ll find a “Summary of Funds.” On that chart, scroll down to “State Appropriations Act” and compare FY 2001 to FY 2002.) Calculated by dollars, the biggest proposed budget increase ($14.2 billion) went to the Defense Department. The State Department proposal benefited from a last-minute push by Colin Powell, and, according to a March 13 story by Alan Sipress in the Washington Post, would address a fairly dire personnel shortage and a laughably antiquated communications system. Believe it or not, ambassadors still communicate with Washington via cable! Certainly the striped-pants set seems to have earned its keep this week with the Chinese release of the U.S. spy plane crew.

So, how big is the proposed Education Department increase? The Bush administration is claiming it’s 11.5 percent, or $4.6 billion. But if you read on, you’ll see this puzzling language:

Corrects for the distortion of advance appropriations, provides a $2.5 billion, or 5.9 percent increase, for Education Department programs, the highest percentage increase of any Cabinet agency, consistent with the priority the President has placed on education.

Ignore, for a moment, the erroneous claim that the Education Department is getting “the highest percentage increase of any Cabinet agency.” (We’ve just established that it isn’t.) What “distortion of advance appropriations” is the White House budget office talking about? Well, back in December, before George W. Bush became president, Congress appropriated about $2 billion for the Education Department, to be disbursed the following year. It did this as an accounting gimmick, in order to stay under a spending cap for the current year that was imposed by a 1997 balanced budget agreement. Gimmick or no, though, the money was spent before Dubya moved into 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue, making it entirely ludicrous for Bush to take credit for it. The real budget increase Bush is proposing for the Education Department is $2.5 billion, a 5.9 percent increase. (Or $2.4 billion, a 5.7 percent increase, according to the Democratic staff of the House Education and Workforce committee, which used slightly different numbers from Congress’ own budget office.) The bureaucratic gobbledygook quoted above therefore translates to “Our claim to increase the Education Department budget by 11.5 percent is laughably wrong, but we’re doing our best to make sure no one will notice.”

It seems to be working on Bush. Here he is on April 11 speaking at North Carolina’s Concord Middle School:

In the budget I submitted to the Congress–one which one body of the House listened to pretty carefully, and one body of the Congress listened to carefully, and the other decided, well, they’re going to listen to some of it, but they decided to increase the size and scope of the federal government–we put a lot of money in for public education. The biggest increase of any department was for public education [italics Chatterbox’s].