Saturday, September 20th, 2014

Our original ruling on Tom Coburn item

On the July 24, 2011, edition of NBC’s Meet the Press, Sen. Tom Coburn, R-Okla., sought to give some perspective on the size of federal spending -- a central factor in the current debate over raising the debt ceiling.

Addressing host David Gregory, Coburn said, "David, everybody's talking about the symptoms of our problem instead of the real disease. The government's twice the size it was 10 years ago. It's 30 percent bigger than it was when (Barack) Obama became president. The problem is that we're spending way too much money, and it's not hard to cut it without hurting entitlement benefits. But we don't have anybody that wants to do that without getting a tax increase."

We wondered whether Coburn was right that the size of government has doubled over the past 10 years.

We began by looking at the size of outlays by the federal government, even though Coburn didn’t specify which level of government he was talking about. (Coburn spokesman John Hart later confirmed that he had meant to refer to just the federal government.)

Here are annual figures from the Office of Management and Budget for total federal outlays:

Fiscal year 2001: $1.86 trillion
Fiscal year 2002: $2.01 trillion
Fiscal year 2003: $2.16 trillion
Fiscal year 2004: $2.29 trillion
Fiscal year 2005: $2.47 trillion
Fiscal year 2006: $2.66 trillion
Fiscal year 2007: $2.73 trillion
Fiscal year 2008: $2.98 trillion
Fiscal year 2009: $3.52 trillion
Fiscal year 2010: $3.46 trillion
Fiscal year 2011 (estimate): $3.82 trillion

So, doubling the 2001 outlays over 10 years would have meant a 2011 figure of $3.72 trillion. Since the actual figure is higher than that, Coburn is right that the cost of government has doubled over the past decade.

What about Coburn’s second claim, that government expenditures are 30 percent bigger than they were when Obama became president?

For this one, it depends when you start the clock.

If you use fiscal 2008 as the baseline -- which we confirmed with Coburn’s staff was his intention -- then the comparison is just about right. Federal outlays increased by 28 percent between fiscal 2008 and fiscal 2011, which is just below the 30 percent Coburn cited.

However, fiscal 2008 ran from Oct. 1, 2007, to Sept. 30, 2008, ending almost four months before Obama took office. The OMB only offers figures by fiscal year, so we can’t pinpoint a number that’s pegged precisely to when Obama took office.

If instead you use as a baseline fiscal 2009 -- which started on Oct. 1, 2008 -- then federal outlays increased by about 9 percent, or well below what Coburn said.

Clearly, the shift of the calculation by just one year makes a big difference in the result.

We also considered whether Coburn intended to blame Obama for this spending increase. This was a tough call. Re-reading his claim, we don’t feel that his use of the inauguration of a new president as the cutoff point necessarily invokes blame. The entirety of Coburn’s comment encompasses government growth over a 10-year period, most of which was clearly under a Republican president, George W. Bush, and not Obama. And the inauguration of a new president is a pretty natural dividing line for making mathematical comparisons.

"No one has a more consistent record of being a nonpartisan critic of spending than Coburn," said Coburn’s communications director, John Hart. "He has been criticizing Republican and Democratic spending for many years."

We agree with this assessment, so we’ll give Coburn the benefit of the doubt on whether he intended to place the blame for government growth on Obama.

So what's the bottom line? Coburn is entirely right about federal outlays doubling over 10 years. And if you use one of two plausible measures, he’s right on the growth since Obama took office. But using another plausible measure, the growth of government under Obama was smaller. On balance, we rate Coburn’s statement Mostly True.

UPDATE: After we posted this story, a number of readers wrote or tweeted us to point out that we hadn’t adjusted federal outlays either for inflation or for the size of the economy. So let’s look at those numbers. The fiscal 2011 federal outlay of $3.82 trillion was equivalent to $3 trillion in 2001 dollars, so when you adjust for inflation, the increase in federal outlays over 10 years was actually 60 percent -- still a significant increase, but short of double. As for government outlays as a percentage of gross domestic product, they rose from 18.2 percent in 2001 to 25.3 percent in 2011 -- an increase of 39 percent, which is also not double. We agree that these statistics provide some useful context, but we don’t think they require us to lower our Truth-O-Meter rating. Coburn said the government is "twice the size it was 10 years ago." We think the most obvious way to make that measurement is through raw dollar figures. If you tell a friend that your son doubled his height over 10 years, we think most people would assume he grew from, say, three feet at age six to six feet at age 16. In describing the growth of your child, we don’t think people would assume you meant that your child moved from the 20th percentile in height to the 40th percentile. If a university touts that it doubled its enrollment over 10 years, we don’t think people would demand an adjustment based on population growth or the college-age makeup of the nation as a whole. We think our rating already takes into account the shortcomings of Coburn’s statement that the inflation and GDP growth figures point to, so we’ve decided to keep the rating at Mostly True.