The federal debt is at the center of a bruising interparty war between Republican Reps. Sandy Adams and John Mica.
Adams, a freshman from Orlando, is using Mica’s 20-year voting record to paint him as a Washington insider steeped in a culture of excessive spending.
"Mica voted to borrow $10 trillion," an Adams mailer claims.
The mailer’s flip-side contains the following text beside an overdue bill: "We got the bill for Mica’s spending spree. Over $30,000 for every man, woman and child in America."
Indeed, the amount of gross debt has increased by more than $10 trillion since 1993, when Mica started his first term in the House. The debt increased from $4.17 trillion on Jan. 4, 1993 (his second day in office) to $15.87 trillion as of July 31, 2012, leaving a difference of $11.7 trillion. Another measure, using debt owed by the public, gives a difference of $8 trillion.
So the number is right, but is this a fair attack?
The debt ceiling vote is a routine but often politicized procedure in Congress, with the party in charge voting yes and the opposition voting no. Since 2001, Congress has voted 11 times to increase the cap because of "persistent budget deficits and additions to federal trust funds," according to the White House Office of Management and Budget. (You can see the increases in the debt limit since 2001 here. Click on Table 7.3)
Mica has voted against some debt limit increases, particularly ones that were part of laws aimed at preventing collapse of the housing market and banks, as well as the economic stimulus.
But Mica has also voted to raise the debt ceiling since taking office in 1993. Mica spokesman Alan Byrd said five favorable votes came "in time of war, after 9/11 and when he and Congress balanced the budget."
Interestingly, his most recent vote -- the controversial August 2011 deal that increased the national debt ceiling by $2.1 trillion -- also snagged support from Adams. Add that to Mica’s other votes to raise the debt ceiling since 1996, and the increases total $3.95 trillion, not $10 trillion.
Bruce Bartlett, an economist who blogs for the New York Times, said the bills Adams spokeswoman Lisa Boothe sent us as evidence appeared randomly selected. Bartlett previously held positions in under Presidents Ronald Reagan and George H.W. Bush.
"None appear to be tax cuts. Several are debt limit increases. It is fundamentally stupid and dishonest to claim that voting for a couple of different bills were THE reason the debt increased," he said. "This claim is beyond ridiculous."
We wanted to look at the bigger picture. Yes, Mica has voted to raise the debt ceiling, and the campaigns can quibble over the total amount of increases he supported. The more important thing for voters to understand is Mica, like many other members of Congress, voted for some of the policies that explain our bleak debt situation today.
Some of the largest factors driving the growth of the debt over the last 10 years come down to three things: spending on the unpaid wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, the Bush tax cuts of 2001 (and extensions of 2003 and 2010), and President Barack Obama’s 2009 economic stimulus package.
In 2001, nonpartisan economists at the Congressional Budget Office expected the government would pay off its debt by 2006 and have a surplus by now. That clearly didn’t happen, so the agency evaluated in 2011 how much of the debt could be attributed to legislative and economic factors.
The breakdown: $8.5 trillion driven by legislation such as the Bush tax cuts, the stimulus, and the Troubled Assets Relief Program, or TARP, for imperiled banks, and $3.2 trillion for economic reasons.
Mica -- like many Republicans, including Speaker John Boehner, Majority Leader Eric Cantor and fellow Florida Rep. C. W. Bill Young -- voted for the Bush tax cuts and the wars. The Washington Post breaks down how current members of Congress voted on these three areas in this 2011 interactive graphic.
While Mica’s votes play a role, there’s blame to be shared with his colleagues. And 75 percent of all members of the current Congress voted for at least one of these drivers, according to the Post’s 2011 analysis.
How much of the legislation passed within the past 10 or so years led to the debt we have now? A report from the nonpartisan Pew Fiscal Analysis Initiative determined about 68 percent of the growth in federal debt between 2001 and 2011 could be attributed to new legislation. Of that, 40 percent was the result of Bush tax cuts. The remaining 60 percent was from increased spending on the wars, the stimulus, the bank bailouts and Medicare Part D.
The debt has dramatically risen since the onset of the country’s recession in 2007 and 2008, rising to about 70 percent as a share of the economy, said Jason Peuquet, research director at Committee for a Responsible Federal Budget.
"Legislation contributes to that, but also a big, huge part is the strength of the economy," Peuquet said, "and for that it’s much harder to assign credit or blame."
One humongous challenge not being addressed in campaign materials is how to reduce the debt before it spins out of control, Peuquet said. It won’t take long (think 2020s) for that to happen, he said, if this path continues.
"By that measure, no lawmaker has been successful, because we haven’t enacted debt reduction legislation that puts us on a successful path," he said.
Adams said Mica "voted to borrow $10 trillion." What she meant, her spokeswoman says, is the debt has increased by $10 trillion since he took office, an increase made possible by his sporadic votes to allow growth of the debt ceiling.
We found his votes on the debt ceiling don't really tell the whole story. More importantly, we think, is the fact that he voted for some of the policies that caused the need for debt ceiling votes in the first place. Still, it takes more than one member of Congress to drive the debt up by the trillions.
We rate the claim Half True.