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Aaron Sharockman
By Aaron Sharockman May 7, 2010

Vern Buchanan says balanced budgets are rare in Washington

U.S. Rep. Vern Buchanan, R-Sarasota, joined an overwhelming majority of Congress on April 27, 2010, in voting to prevent an automatic cost-of-living pay raise for members of Congress.

The measure, which passed the House 402-15 and the Senate on a unanimous voice vote, marks the third consecutive year Congress will go without a pay increase.

Before the vote, Buchanan recorded a web video discussing 2009 legislation that would have prohibited members of Congress from receiving a raise unless they balance the federal budget. Buchanan's so-called "No Balanced Budget, No Raise Act" never received a committee hearing.

Buchanan said he ran for Congress to preach fiscal responsibility.

"In the last 50 years, we've only balanced the budget five times," Buchanan said.

We wanted to see if Buchanan's recollection of history is correct.

The White House Office of Management and Budget and the Congressional Budget Office both track yearly federal revenues and expenditures. Technically, a budget is considered balanced when federal expenses equal federal revenues -- meaning there is no deficit or surplus. Generally speaking, however, most people consider a budget balanced when revenues meet or exceed expenditures.

The federal budget is so huge -- now about $3.7 trillion -- that balancing it with revenues is almost impossible. It hasn't happened in at least the last 110 years, according to the OMB.

However, in the past 50 years, from 1960-2010, the federal government took in more money than it spent five times -- in 1969, 1998, 1999, 2000 and 2001.

Four of the surplus years came together from 1998-2001, President Bill Clinton's last three years in office, and President George W. Bush's first year in office. According to the Office of Management and Budget, the four surpluses totaled more than $559 billion.

The fifth surplus -- $3.2 billion -- came in 1969, when Richard Nixon was president.

The last surplus before that was in 1960, 51 budget years ago, and outside the window of Buchanan's statement.

While a federal surplus is rare in modern history, that's not always been the case. A 1998 study of budget surpluses and deficits conducted for the House Joint Economic Committee found that federal surpluses outnumbered deficits 108 to 100, "with surpluses dominating in a large majority of the years prior to 1930."

Urging increased fiscal restraint in Washington, Buchanan lamented in a web video that the federal budget has only been balanced five times in the last 50 years. While the use of the word balance isn't 100 percent right, Buchanan is correct that the federal government has been able to cover its yearly expenses just five times since 1961 -- in 1969 and from 1998-2001. We rate his statement True.

Featured Fact-check

Our Sources

Vern Buchanan, No Pay Raise for Congress, April 27, 2010

White House Office of Management and Budget, Summary of Receipts, Outlays, and Surpluses or Deficits (1789-2015)

Congressional Budget Office, Revenues, Outlays, Deficits, Surpluses, and Debt Held by the Public, 1968 to 2007, in Billions of Dollars

American Association for the Advancement of Science, Federal Budget Deficit (or Surplus), FY 1960-2008

New York Times, "1960 Budget Surplus Raised by $156 Million," Dec. 7, 1960, accessed via Google news archive

Thomas, "No Balanced Budget, No Raise Act"

The Hill, "House votes down automatic pay raise," April 27, 2010

House Joint Economic Committee, "Budget Surpluses, Deficits and Government Spending," December 1998

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Vern Buchanan says balanced budgets are rare in Washington

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