One of the most reliable Republican attacks on President Barack Obama has been that he and his allies in Congress are spending too much of the taxpayers' money. In his live-blogging response to Obama's State of the Union address on Jan. 27, 2010, House Minority Leader John Boehner, R-Ohio, criticized Obama's handling of the federal budget by playing off Obama's proposed freeze on domestic spending.
"President Obama pledged to go through the budget 'line by line,' " Boehner wrote, "but on his watch, nondefense spending has spiraled out of control, increasing by 67 percent in the last year alone."
Analyzing the accuracy of this comment requires an immersion in budget wonkery. Specifically, determining whether Boehner is right depends heavily on whether you are talking about "budget authority" or "outlays."
When Congress approves budget authority, it confers the right to spend money for a certain purpose. But for various reasons, that money may not be spent during the fiscal year when it is authorized. For instance, a given program may take longer than expected to get up and running, employees may not be hired immediately, or, most commonly, lawmakers may intend for the spending to be made in subsequent years. The actual money spent in a given year is referred to as "outlays."
Let's look at the the various ways to calculate the numbers that Boehner cited.
According to the Congressional Budget Office, the federal budget authority for nondefense, discretionary spending in fiscal year 2008 -- the last year under President George W. Bush -- was $494 billion. (Discretionary spending refers to funds appropriated on an annual basis by Congress, while mandatory spending -- a separate category -- includes required programs such as Social Security, as well as interest on the federal debt.)
The budget authority for nondefense, discretionary spending in 2009 -- including budget authority from the 2009 stimulus bill -- was $803 billion. That's an increase of about 63 percent -- quite close to what Boehner's blog post suggested.
But not all the budget authority conveyed by the stimulus bill was exercised in 2009. In fact, of the $268 billion in budget authority conveyed for 2009, only about $35 billion was actually spent in 2009, or roughly 13 percent of the total budget authority.
So if you remove from the calculations the unspent budget authority from the stimulus -- sticking instead to the nondefense discretionary outlays in both the regular budget and the stimulus -- the increase from 2008 to 2009 was 11.3 percent. That's quite a bit less than what was suggested by Boehner's blog post.
"It's very misleading," said Marc Goldwein, policy director for the Committee for a Responsible Federal Budget. He said Boehner essentially took more than one year's expenditures and counted them in a single year.
We talked to Boehner's office, and staffers acknowledged that the congressman's phrasing could have been more accurate. But they maintained that their larger point holds.
"Congressional Democrats voted to increase spending by 67 percent," Boehner spokesman Michael Steel said. "That’s the way the American people understand it. You can quibble about the arcana of budget wonk terminology, but they voted to spend the money, and we’re very comfortable using that figure."
Boehner gets some outside backup. Brian Riedl, a senior policy analyst at the conservative Heritage Foundation, said that calculating budget authority is not totally out of left field. It's a "measure of congressional intent," he said.
But because Boehner wrote that nondefense spending "has spiraled out of control," to use numbers that refer to budget authority are, at best, misleading. In this case, the difference between those two methods isn't trivial, thanks to the unusual circumstances of a massive, multiyear spending bill being passed in 2009. In essence, calculating it Boehner's way turns a comparatively modest spending increase into a whopping one. For that reason, we rate his statement Barely True.
Editor's note: This statement was rated Barely True when it was published. On July 27, 2011, we changed the name for the rating to Mostly False.