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Robert Farley
By Robert Farley March 25, 2009

Judd Gregg says Obama's budget doubles the national debt in five years

You remember Judd Gregg, the Republican senator from New Hampshire tapped by President Obama to be commerce secretary. He was one of Obama's celebrated bipartisan Cabinet picks, but then withdrew his nomination in February, citing "irresolvable conflicts" with the Obama agenda.

Conflicts indeed.

This week, Gregg has appeared on several news programs lambasting Obama's proposed 2010 budget, saying it runs up so much debt "it basically will bankrupt our children and our children's children."

In what has become a familiar talking point from Republican opponents, Gregg told Fox News on March 25 that Obama's budget "doubles the (national) debt in five years, triples it in 10 years."

To check the claim, we relied on an analysis from the Congressional Budget Office, released on March 20. The CBO, a nonpartisan arm of Congress, projects that the national debt will go from $5.8 trillion in 2008 to $11.8 trillion by the end of 2013; and to $17.3 trillion in 2019. By that count, Gregg's claim of doubling the debt in five years, tripling it in 10 years, is correct. But we think that's a little unfair.

In January, the CBO projected the one-year 2009 deficit at $1.2 trillion. Remember, that's the 2009 fiscal year, which began in October 2008. That deficit was worse because of the recession, and grew because of a financial bailout plan in the fall. To be fair, we don't think Obama's record ought to be saddled with something that passed under President Bush.

So let's add that $1.2 trillion that was largely started under Bush to the $5.8 trillion in national debt accumulated through fiscal year 2008. That comes to roughly $7 trillion. Under that scenario, the CBO's projections don't quite translate to a doubling of the national debt in 5 years ($7 trillion to $11.8 trillion). Nor does it fully support the claim that the debt would triple in 10 years ($7 trillion to $17.3 trillion). But it's not outrageously off either.

In another item, we looked at Obama's claim that his budget plan would cut the deficit in half in five years. We found that while technically true, it is a bit misleading because it uses 2009's massive deficit as a comparator. Obama and others in his administration have cited this stat along with sentiments that we can't "pass on our problems to the next generation."

This is a good time to note the difference between the deficit, a calculation of the difference between what the government takes in versus what it spends in any given year, as opposed to the national debt, which is a running tally of what the U.S. government owes. That's why it's possible that Obama is technically accurate when he says the CBO projects his plan will halve the deficit in five years; while the national debt will grow by $4.6 trillion over the same stretch.

"It's the biggest transfer of debt onto future generations in American history," said Brian Riedl, a research fellow in federal budget policy at the conservative Heritage Foundation.

The Obama administration's projections aren't as dire as the CBO's. While the CBO projects the national debt to rise $9.3 trillion in 10 years; the administration projects it will grow by $7 trillion.

In a prime-time news conference on March 24, Obama said the difference is due to the administration's slightly more optimistic outlook on future economic growth. Obama warned not to place too much stock in the "out years" of budget projections because "none of us know exactly what's going to happen six or eight or 10 years from now." And, he said, it's just his first of many budgets moving forward.

As for Gregg's claim, we think that based on CBO projections, his numbers come up a little short of "double in five years, triple in 10." But they're not grossly misrepresentative of the CBO's projections, which we think is as fair a measure as any. And so we rate his statement Mostly True.

Our Sources

Congressional Budget Office, A Preliminary Analysis of the President’s Budget and an Update of CBO’s Budget and Economic Outlook , March 20, 2009

White House Web site, Summary Tables for the President's 2010 Budget Proposal

White House Web site, Historical Tables: Budgets of the United States Government , 2009

CQ Transcripts, Obama press conference, March 24, 2009

CQ Transcripts. Sen. Judd Gregg is interviewed on Fox News, March 25, 2009

Interview with Jonathan DeWald, a spokesman for the Concord Coalition, March 24, 2009

Interview with Brian Riedl, a research fellow in federal budget policy at the Heritage Foundation, March 25, 2009

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Judd Gregg says Obama's budget doubles the national debt in five years

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