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Numbers Game: The $856 Billion Bill

One quick, preliminary thought on the Baucus bill, or at least media coverage thereof: Headlines and lead paragraphs of articles are already referring to the bill as an $856 billion measure. The figure refers to the program's proposed outlays--that is, the money that the federal government would send out the door.

It's a useful figure, to be sure. Among other things, the size of the program has a direct impact on the generosity of subsidies--and amount of guaranteed financial protection--that the bill will reform. (That's why, if you read this blog regularly, you've listened to me scream to get the price tag up to $1 trillion, if not higher.)

This is also consistent with coverage of other measures. Articles about the House bills, for example, frequently referred to it as a $1 trillion bill--or more, since there was some dispute about what counts as outlays.

But the figure also fosters a misconception. When people see that figure in a headline or story, many immediatley assume that's money the government will lose on net--i.e., this is all going to be added to our deficits and, as a result, to our rising federal debt.

In fact, one virtue of the Baucus bill--perhaps its chief virtue--is that it won't create red ink. On the contrary, projections suggest the combination of savings and revenues will pay for every dime of the program, as President Obama likes to put it, and actually start to generate small surpluses by the time the ten-year window is over. It's also supposed to save money after that period, actually curbing our medical expenditures.

Like all projections, those estimates are rough and subject to legitimate debate. But the Baucus bill, whatever its other flaws, ought to get some recognition for not adding to the budget deficits. The headlines tend to obscure that.