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Louis Jacobson
By Louis Jacobson June 23, 2010

Durbin misstates debt growth during Bush years

In the latest example of congressional leaders sparring over the ballooning federal debt, Senate Majority Whip Dick Durbin, D-Ill., took to the floor on June 22, 2010, to lay the biggest share of the blame on the administration of former President George W. Bush.

During the floor speech, Durbin said Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., "is right. Deficits are important. So are facts. Let's mention a few facts on the floor of the Senate."

He continnued, "When President George W. Bush was elected, President Clinton said: Welcome to Washington. Here is a $230 billion surplus. ... But what happened in 8 years of Republican rule, fiscally conservative Republican rule? I will tell you what happened. The national debt went from $5 trillion to $12 trillion. ...

"The national debt from Bill Clinton, $5 trillion; to the end of President George W. Bush, $12 trillion, and a little gift that President George W. Bush left to President Barack Obama as he left office. No, he did not leave him the $230 billion that he was given as he came into the presidency. No, he handed off to President Obama a $1.3 trillion deficit. Welcome to Washington, President Obama."

So, "in eight years of Republican rule," was it true that "the national debt went from $5 trillion to $12 trillion?"

No -- an important part of Durbin's "fact" is wrong.

According to historical tables published by the Office of Management and Budget, Durbin was close, though slightly low, in characterizing the federal debt level at the beginning of Bush's presidency. At the end of calendar year 2000, just before Bush took office, the debt stood at $5.629 trillion.

Fast-forward eight years -- that is, just before Bush handed the reins to Barack Obama -- and the federal debt stood at $9.986 trillion. That's close to double, but it's still about $2 trillion less than what Dubrin said it was.

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When we asked Durbin's office for comment, a spokesman acknowledged the error and said that the senator will be correcting the record.

We considered the possibility that Durbin's office was ascribing the extra $2 trillion to policies begun under Bush that played out after Obama took office. But that didn't seem right to us. While it's true that the Congressional Budget Office did predict on Jan. 7, 2009 -- two weeks before Obama took office -- that the deficit for fiscal year 2009 would reach $1.2 trillion, that was a projection. The legislation that led to the actual deficits for 2009 was based on a blueprint inherited from Bush, but it was passed by a Democratic Congress and signed by Obama himself.

In addition, Durbin's comment clearly talks about numbers at "the end of" Bush's administration, not at a point in Obama's first year. Finally, Durbin's staff did not seek to raise this argument with us.

For those keeping track, the debt estimate for the end of 2010 -- two years into Obama's term -- is $13.787 trillion. That's a 38 percent increase over two years. Looked at another way, the debt under Bush went up $4.357 trillion over eight years, while it has gone up under Obama by $3.801 trillion in two years.

Republicans and Democrats will continue to fight over whether spending, wars, entitlement expansions and tax cuts under Bush or spending, wars, entitlement expansions and tax cuts under Obama are a bigger reason for the growing debt. But we believe Durbin's floor statement was off by about $2 trillion. So we rule his statement False.

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