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Cheney, Lieberman Play Games With Numbers

By Glenn Kessler, The Washington Post
Friday 6 October 2000; Page A21

Sen. Joseph I. Lieberman and former defense secretary Richard B. Cheney last night might not have generated the same sparks as their boss's debate earlier this week. But when it came to playing the numbers game, both showed the same facility at tossing around facts and assertions of questionable origin.

From the first question, moderator Bernard Shaw tried to get either man to admit that the economic plans of their respective campaigns were based on optimistic assumptions of a budget surplus over the next decade that may not materialize. But both candidates plowed ahead, with barely a pause, explaining how they would spend it.

Lieberman did mention that he and Vice President Gore would establish a $300 billion "reserve fund" in case money didn't materialize. But this is an accounting fiction, designed to showcase the fact that Gore is using slightly less optimistic White House budget assumptions, compared with those of Congress. Much of the extra money, even if the assumptions today turned out to be absolutely accurate, would not appear until 2009 and 2010, after the end of a hypothetical second Gore-Lieberman term.

Cheney, for his part, said that George W. Bush's proposed tax cut eats up only "one-quarter" of the surplus. This is a stretch. The Bush campaign comes up with this figure in part by counting the entire surplus (including Social Security funds that both parties say are off-limits). Then, it ignores the fact that some of the surplus would be eaten up by $300 billion in extra interest on the national debt because the tax cut would produce less money for the government.

In fact, Bush would allocate one out of three dollars of the entire surplus to his tax cut, and almost all of the surplus not dedicated to Social Security.

On Social Security, both men made pledges that could one day haunt them. Lieberman looked into the camera and declared, "I can pledge to the American people categorically that no one will lose benefits under our plan for Social Security as far forward as 2054."

But Gore's plan leaves much of the current system essentially untouched and in fact would put new burdens on it with promised new benefits for women. He relies on future administrations and Congresses to funnel general tax revenue into Social Security to keep paying benefits. Virtually no Social Security expert believes the current system can survive another half-century without benefit cuts, tax increases or some other fundamental restructuring.

Cheney, meanwhile, said that under Bush's plan to create individual Social Security accounts, "we generate [returns of] at least 6 percent," three times higher than what he said retirees can now expect from their payroll contributions.

But almost every privatization plan for Social Security assumes that participants will see some reduction in promised benefits in exchange for the accounts, and workers might be lucky simply to match the current benefits with the performance in their accounts. That's because the need to keep paying benefits to current retirees will remain a drag on the system for decades to come.

Cheney and Lieberman tangled passionately on defense, with Cheney saying the military is in decline and Lieberman responding that it is still the best in the world and that it is "not right . . . to run them down" for partisan purposes.

The irony of that exchange is that Lieberman is in some ways closer to Texas Gov. Bush's stance on defense than is Cheney. As a member of the Senate Armed Services Committee, Lieberman long has been one of the leading congressional advocates of "military transformation"; that is, changing the U.S. military so that it can better deal with the new challenges of the 21st century.

Early in the presidential campaign, Bush staked out a position supporting military transformation, saying among other things that the way to change the military is to skip a generation of technology and start developing newer, better weaponry.

So when Cheney appears to want a return to the military of the Persian Gulf War era, he is calling for something that no one in the military is advocating. The Joint Chiefs of Staff testified last week that current tactical readiness is good, but that more spending is needed to develop the military of tomorrow.

At the same time, when Lieberman said that Bush's call for skipping a generation of technology would "cripple our readiness," he was essentially criticizing the transformation view that he himself has advocated in the past.

In the discussion on oil, Cheney said there had been no new refineries in 10 years, suggesting this was a Clinton-Gore problem. But it would have been more accurate to say there have been no new refineries in 25 years, including during President George Bush's administration. Moreover, according to the Energy Information Administration, refinery capacity declined from 1981 to 1993, but since then has risen slightly, though it is still lower than in 1981.

Cheney also said that "stay-at-home moms" get no tax relief from Gore's package of targeted tax cuts. But Gore does offer a relatively small carrot: a $500 tax credit if a parent stays at home with a baby under the age of 12 months.

Both men made claims on education that sound contradictory, but each was right, depending on the data set. Cheney said, "There's been no progress on reading scores in the last eight years, almost no progress on math." That's correct, based on the result of the National Assessment of Educational Progress. In fact, they've been stagnant for 20 years, not just recently.

Lieberman responded, "Average testing scores are up." Average math scores on the Scholastic Assessment Test, taken by college-bound seniors, just recorded a gain but verbal scores have been level for five years in a row.

Cheney, however, overstated the difference in academic performance between whites and minorities when he said it "is as big as it's ever been." There has been some improvement since the 1970s, but not in the past decade.

Staff writer Thomas E. Ricks contributed to this report.

Copyright 2000 The Washington Post

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