Last November, the Bush administration and congressional GOP leadership did some extraordinary arm-twisting to pass a Medicare prescription-drug plan that President Bush wanted as a centerpiece of his re-election. Republican conservatives were particularly reluctant to pass the bill, given its $400 billion price tag over the next 10 years at a time when the deficit is soaring.
At one point, things got so heated that one Republican congressmen later accused his party leaders of attempted bribery on the House floor, a charge reportedly now under FBI investigation.
What none of those congressmen realized, however, was that they were being snookered. Some of them had been promised that the program's cost would not exceed the $400 billion estimate; yet five months before the vote took place, government analysts had concluded that the program's actual cost would be closer to $550 billion.
In a serious breach of ethics, the actuaries who produced that figure were ordered by Bush appointees to conceal their findings from Congress and the public on pain of being fired. Even congressmen who asked specifically about cost estimates were told they did not exist.
"This whole episode, which has now gone on for three weeks, has been pretty nightmarish," actuary Richard Foster wrote in an internal e-mail to colleagues back on June 26. (The message was recently obtained by Knight-Ridder newspapers.) "I'm perhaps no longer in grave danger of being fired, but there remains a strong likelihood that I will have to resign in protest of the withholding of important technical information from key policy-makers for political reasons." (Foster still has his job.)
Two months after the critical vote in Congress, the White House finally admitted the truth, after a fashion. It announced that it was shocked -- shocked! -- to discover that the actual cost of the Medicare bill had zoomed to $534 billion.
"That really is a shocker," Robert L. Bixby, executive director of the anti-deficit Concord Coalition, said at the time. "It's a huge change. If a number like this had been floating around the Capitol last fall, it never would have passed."
What we have here is government by willful deception, a scandal compounded by the fact that ethical public servants were actually intimidated into not doing their jobs. And unfortunately, it is only part of a pattern of such behavior.
Three weeks before the crucial congressional vote committing this country to war against Iraq in 2002, the Bush administration had learned that North Korea had restarted its nuclear weapons program, a fact that dramatically altered the nation's strategic situation. With that news, the possibility of a military conflict on the Korean peninsula rose sharply.
Members of Congress needed that information if they were to fulfill their constitutional responsibilities wisely; with that knowledge, they might have been less likely to commit our troops to Iraq, where roughly half of the Army is now deployed. But the administration chose to keep Congress in the dark about the information until after the Iraq vote had been cast.
Again, in the days leading up to the war vote, administration officials told Congress it had no idea what a war would cost. When Lawrence Lindsey, then head of the White House's National Economic Council, let it slip that it would probably cost somewhere between $100 billion and $200 billion -- far higher than unofficial estimates by the Pentagon at the time, and in the end pretty accurate -- it led to his dismissal.
Even now, the administration is playing the game again by refusing to include the cost of occupying Iraq in the 2005 budget it has submitted to Congress, a ploy that keeps the projected 2005 deficit artificially low. That budget takes effect Oct. 1, yet the White House says it won't release its request for additional money until January, long after people have cast their ballots.
Apparently, the White House finds the specter of well-informed voters pretty frightening.
© 2004 The Atlanta Journal-Constitution