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By Will Van Sant May 7, 2008

His percentage is right; his amount is not

Sen. John McCain has a long record of speaking out against government spending, so it was no surprise to hear him fretting in April about how the federal government has grown in recent years. Especially now that he's a presidential candidate.

While appearing on ABC's This Week, McCain got specific. He claimed the federal government had grown 40 percent in recent years.

McCain pointed to the growth while declaring his intent to end "business as usual" in Washington and cut "hundreds of billions of dollars out of wasteful and unnecessary spending in America."

At the same time, McCain defended tax cuts he would seek if elected president.

"My friend, we have increased the size of government by some 40 percent just in the last few years," McCain told George Stephanopoulos during the April 20, 2008, broadcast. "By some 40 percent, by trillions. By trillions, we have increased the size of government."

He later clarified that the increase was between 2000 and 2008.

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McCain's campaign at first cited annual federal spending totals from the Office of Management and Budget as the source of the claim.

After being told that those numbers showed growth of 61 percent, from $1.8-trillion to $2.9-trillion, and that according to scholars the values had to be adjusted for inflation (which brings you to a 33 percent hike), the McCain campaign said they'd offered up the wrong figures.

Rather than total federal spending, the campaign said they believe McCain was referring to inflation-adjusted discretionary spending, which is another standard measure economists and political scientists use to track government growth. Discretionary spending is the money Congress and the president control each year, as compared with mandatory spending on entitlement programs such as Social Security and Medicare.

In fact, adjusted federal discretionary spending did climb nearly 43 percent during the period, going from $615-billion to $877-billion.

The problem is that while McCain had the percentage right, he kept talking. The increase in discretionary spending was not in trillions and trillions of dollars, as McCain went on to say, but in billions. Actually, spending hasn't increased by trillions even when you look at total federal government spending.

Asked to nail down more precisely what measure McCain was using, the campaign did not respond. So, McCain has his percentage right, but he's way off on the actual dollars involved. That brings us to Mostly True.

Our Sources

White House Office of Management and Budget Fiscal 2009 Federal Budget

CQ transcript of McCain's This Week appearance

E-mail exchange with Brian Rogers, McCain campaign spokesman, April 22, 2008

Interview with Brian Riedl, senior budget analyst, Heritage Foundation

Interview with Russell Rhine, associate professor of economics, St. Mary's College of Maryland

Interview with Joseph Cooper, professor of political science, Johns Hopkins University

Interview with Paul C. Light, professor, New York University's Wagner School of Public Service

Interview with Adam Hughes, director of federal fiscal policy, OMB Watch

Interview with Gordon Gray, policy staffer, McCain campaign

All interviews conducted April, 2008

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