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Ever since Barack Obama became president and began advocating such big-dollar federal programs as an economic stimulus and health care reform, Republicans have gained increasing political traction with warnings to voters about the growing national debt.
On March 24, 2010, House Minority Leader John Boehner, R-Ohio, published an op-ed in the Des Moines Register that was timed to coincide with a March 25 visit by Obama to Iowa City, Iowa. Obama visited Iowa City to tout the health care bill two days after signing it into law.
Boehner's column -- titled, "Why Republicans will fight to repeal health care takeover" -- was a broadside against the newly signed bill, featuring a wide range of statistics. In it, he asserted that the health care bill "is a recipe for further fiscal disaster at a time when our national debt ($12.7 trillion today) is on track to exceed the size of our entire economy (about $15 trillion) in just two more years."
That struck us as a huge amount, so we decided to take a closer look.
First, we'll offer a reminder that the debt is different from a deficit. A deficit refers to the amount by which expenses exceed revenues in a single year. The debt -- which is what Boehner was referring to -- refers to the cumulative total of past deficits, minus any intervening surpluses.
To sort out whether Boehner's numbers are right, we turned to the extensive historical tables in the president's fiscal year 2011 budget proposal.
According to these figures, which come from the Office of Management and Budget, the gross federal debt by the end of fiscal year 2010 is projected to be almost $13.8 trillion. That's actually a bit more than Boehner had suggested.
Two years later -- by the end of fiscal year 2012 -- the debt is projected to rise to $16.3 trillion, also higher than Boehner had indicated.
But Boehner is correct that, measured by the share of gross domestic product, gross federal debt will reach a significant milestone in two years. By 2012, gross federal debt is projected to be 100.8 percent of gross domestic product, up from 99.0 percent for fiscal year 2011.
These numbers, we'll add, have been growing for decades, roughly tripling since Jimmy Carter left the presidency. Under Ronald Reagan, debt as a percentage of GDP grew from 33.4 percent to 51.9 percent, and under George H.W. Bush, it grew from 51.9 percent to 64.1 percent. It declined under Bill Clinton, from 64.1 percent to 57.3 percent, before rising from 57.3 percent to 69.2 percent under George W. Bush. It's expected to soar during Obama's first four years from 69.2 percent to 100.8 percent.
It's worth noting that there is an alternative measure of debt known as "public debt," which does not include money in the Social Security trust fund or other amounts that the government owes itself. Measured this way, the debt-to-GDP comparisons are much smaller. By the end of 2010, public debt is projected to be 60.3 percent of GDP, and by the end of 2012, it's projected to be 66.6 percent.
Some economists prefer to use public debt rather than gross federal debt, but one measure "isn’t more 'right' than the other – they are just looking at different things," said Marc Goldwein, policy director for the Committee for a Responsible Federal Budget, a middle-of-the-road budget-hawk group. "Boehner may be cherry-picking, but I don’t think he’s misrepresenting in any way."
It's also worth noting that these numbers are only estimates. They could change over the course of the next two years, depending on economic conditions and policy choices. Still, we consider Boehner's statistics valid. While he underestimates the size of the projected debt in 2010 and 2012, his assertion that "our national debt ... is on track to exceed the size of our entire economy ... in just two more years" is on target, according to the president's own Office of Management and Budget. So we rate his statement True.
John Boehner, "Why Republicans will fight to repeal health-care takeover" (op-ed in the Des Moines Register), March 24, 2010
Office of Management and Budget, the president's budget for fiscal year 2011 (Table 7.1—Federal Debt at the End of Year: 1940–2015), accessed March 25, 2010
Congressional Budget Office, "The Budget and Economic Outlook: Fiscal Years 2010 to 2020" (Table 1-7. CBO’s Baseline Projections of Federal Debt), January 2010
Bureau of the Public Debt, "Historical Debt Outstanding - Annual 2000 - 2009" (table), accessed March 25, 2010
E-mail interview with Marc Goldwein, policy director for the Committee for a Responsible Federal Budget, March 25, 2010
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