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Louis Jacobson
By Louis Jacobson September 9, 2010

Lee Fisher hammers Rob Portman on record in Bush administration

As a Democrat trying to win a Republican-held Senate seat in economically distressed Ohio, it's not surprising that Lee Fisher would focus his campaign ads on the economy. In a recent ad, he attacked opponent Rob Portman's service under President George W. Bush as U.S trade representative and then as director of the Office of Management and Budget.

"Congressman Rob Portman knows how to grow the economy -- in China," the ad says. "He voted for billions in tax breaks for companies that export jobs. On his watch as Bush's trade czar, our deficit with China exploded, sending 100,000 Ohio jobs overseas. As Bush's budget chief, Portman oversaw a spending spree that doubled the deficit. Outsourcing, bad trade deals, soaring deficicts. Congressman Portman -- a real economic plan, but not for Ohio."

Let's get something out of the way first: The honorific in the ad aside, Portman last served in Congress in 2005. (Perhaps the Fisher camp thinks anyone associated with Congress will attract extra ire from voters.) We also won't check the jobs figure, which is an estimate over which reasonable people can disagree.

Instead, we'll focus on two other claims about Portman -- that "on his watch as Bush's trade czar, our deficit with China exploded," and that "as Bush's budget chief, Portman oversaw a spending spree that doubled the deficit."

To analyze the claim about the trade deficit, we turned to the Census Bureau, which tracks foreign trade statistics on a month-by-month and year-by-year basis. We looked at the time that Portman served as U.S. trade representative, which was from April 29, 2005, to May 26, 2006.

We found that the trade deficit went up by almost $228 billion over that 13-month period. For comparison's sake, we looked at the 13 months prior to Portman taking the job. We found that the trade deficit with China rose by about $189 million during that period.

Comparing those two numbers, the cumulative trade deficit under Portman was about 21 percent higher than it was for the equivalent time period just before he took office.

We didn't see any direct disagreement on this point in the Portman camp's news release attacking the ad or in their e-mail interview with us. The release tries to deflect that ad by offering several examples of how Portman went after the Chinese on trade enforcement. But it doesn't offer an alternate way of looking at trade deficit numbers.

So while the term "exploded" is a bit of an exaggeration, a 21 percent increase is nothing to sneeze at.

As for the deficit, we turned to OMB historical tables. As OMB director from May 26, 2006, to August 3, 2007, Portman was deeply involved in the fiscal year 2008 budget process. (The fiscal 2007 budget would have been handled by his predecessor.)

The fiscal 2008 deficit of nearly $459 billion was more than twice the fiscal 2007 deficit, which approached $161 billion.

Portman's camp counters that Bush's 2008 budget mapped out a plan for a fiscal 2008 budget deficit that was actually smaller than the fiscal 2007 budget deficit, with surpluses returning by fiscal 2012. The Portman campaign blames changes made by the Democratic-controlled Congress for busting the budget.

Since the president's budget is essentially a wish list that is always subject to negotiation before implementation, we don't buy the argument that Portman should simply be judged on the initial proposal in the budget process.

Gene Steuerle, an economist at the liberal-leaning Urban Institute, says that the final deficit numbers owed at least as much, if not more, to decisions and events after Portman had left OMB, including Bush's economic stimulus package -- the financial bailout and the decline in tax revenues that followed the official start of the recession in December 2007.

Indeed, in OMB's Mid-Session Review -- a budget document produced on July 11, 2007, shortly before Portman left OMB -- the agency projected the deficit for fiscal 2008 to be $258 billion. If we take this projection and compare it to the 2007 deficit, it's about 60 percent higher. That's less than double.

This brings up the broader question of how much of the burden for these economic numbers should fall on anyone who holds Portman's former positions. The president, Congress and other cabinet officials have a say in both areas, and broader economic trends shape the patterns as well. "There's nothing a USTR can do about it when the primary cause is U.S. demand and a mercantilist Chinese exchange rate policy," said J.D. Foster, an economist at the conservative Heritage Foundation.

On the other hand, the ad is careful to say that the economic developments occurred "on (Portman's) watch," rather than that he was solely responsible for them. (That makes it safer than a prior Fisher claim that PolitiFact Ohio ruled False -- that Portman was "the one who actually sucked the jobs out of the (Mahoning) Valley and sent them to China.")

So let's review what we found. The ad overstated how big the jump in both statistics was, but in both cases, the numbers did increase significantly on Portman's watch. And while we acknowledge that Portman isn't the only factor -- nor, perhaps, even the primary factor -- in the course of both economic trends, we do think that in the middle of a campaign, challenging an opponent on his record in office is fair game. On balance, we rate the item Half True.

Featured Fact-check

Our Sources

Fisher for Senate campaign, "Economic Plan" (ad), Sep. 7, 2010

Portman for Senate campaign, news release responding to the Fisher campaign ad, Sep. 7, 2010

U.S. Census Bureau, "Trade in Goods (Imports, Exports and Trade Balance) with China" (chart), accessed Sep. 8, 2010

Office of Management and Budget, "Summary of Receipts, Outlays, and Surpluses or Deficits, 1789–2012" (table 1.1 from the president's fiscal 2008 budget), accessed Sep. 8. 2010

Office of Management and Budget, "Mid-Session Review," July 11, 2007

PolitiFact Ohio, "Lee Fisher says Rob Portman 'actually sucked the jobs' out of Ohio," Aug. 25, 2010

U.S. Trade Representative, list of former USTRs, accessed Sep. 8, 2010

Office of Management and Budget, list of former OMB directors, accessed Sep. 8, 2010

E-mail interview with Gene Steuerle, fellow at the Urban Institute, Sep. 8, 2010

E-mail interview with J.D. Foster, senior fellow at the Heritage Foundation, Sep. 8, 2010

E-mail interview with Jessica Towhey, spokeswoman for the Portman for Senate campaign, Sep. 8, 2010

E-mail interview with Holly Shulman, spokeswoman for Fisher for Senate campaign, Sep. 8, 2010

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Lee Fisher hammers Rob Portman on record in Bush administration

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