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Warren Fiske
By Warren Fiske April 1, 2011

Eric Cantor says discretionary spending up 20 percent in 2 years, 80 percent with stimulus

House Majority Leader Eric Cantor rarely passes an opportunity to brand President Barack Obama as a reckless spender.

During a March 17 interview on Fox News, the Virginia Republican said Obama "missed the opportunity" to cut spending in the 2012 federal budget he sent to Congress this winter.

Cantor complained Obama’s proposal would merely freeze discretionary spending. "That’s after it’s increased by over 20-some percent over the last two years if you don’t include the stimulus," he told host Greta Van Susteren. "If you put the stimulus in, it’s over 80 percent."

We checked his numbers.

First, an explanation: Discretionary spending is the money Congress controls through annual appropriations. It goes for services such as defense, education, health and housing. In contrast, mandatory spending is used for entitlement programs with required levels of funding -- Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid.

Ray Allen, a political adviser to Cantor, said the congressman was referring to non-defense discretionary spending. He also said Cantor, in discussing spending "over the last two years" is referring to a period that begins with Obama’s inauguration on Jan. 20, 2009.

PolitiFact is no stranger to the set of numbers Cantor used. They also have been cited by Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, and Rep. Paul Ryan, R-Wisc., chairman of the House Budget Committee. The figures, culled from the Congressional Budget Office, can be traced to a Ryan news release last June.

Although several budget experts we spoke to quibbled about the exact figures Cantor used, the raw numbers are not really in dispute. His computations of those numbers, however, have problems.

The numbers show non-defense discretionary spending rose from $434 billion in fiscal 2008 to $537 billion in fiscal 2010. That’s a 23.7 percent jump -- consistent with the "20-some percent" increase Cantor claimed.

Cantor does not provide an historical perspective to those numbers, so we will. In the eight federal budgets approved during Republican George W. Bush’s administration -- non-defense discretionary spending increased by an average 9.6 percent each year. During the first two years of the Obama administration, it has grown by an annual average of 11.9 percent.

Non-defense discretionary spending adds up to about one-sixth of expenditures in the federal budget. Even if it was completely eliminated, the nation would still run an estimated $820 billion deficit this fiscal year, according to the Congressional Budget Office.

Now, let’s move to the $787 billion stimulus package, approved by the Democratic-controlled Congress in 2009 with hopes that a federal injection of money would jolt the economy out of recession.  A third of the money -- $259 billion -- was appropriated for discretionary uses.

Cantor adds all of the $259 billion to the $537 billion in discretionary spending for 2010.

That gives him a total of $796 billion in discretionary spending for fiscal 2010. And if you compare it to the $434 billion in 2008, it’s an 83.4 percent increase -- consistent with the "over 80 percent" he claimed.

But there are a few catches.

First, not everyone agrees it’s appropriate to include stimulus money in the calculation since it could be considered one-time emergency spending -- not part of the budget base. Cantor seemed to acknowledge that point by saying, "If you put the stimulus in, it’s over 80 percent."

We also wondered why Cantor counted the $257 billion in 2010. After all, the stimulus was approved in 2009.

Allen said Cantor lumped the stimulus money into fiscal 2010 because that’s the year most of it was spent. "When something passed is irrelevant," Allen said. "What matters is when it’s spent."

Several budget experts said Allen’s point is valid. So we went back to the spread sheets and encountered a problem: We found no one, including Cantor, who could produce data showing the exact yearly expenditures of non-discretionary stimulus funds.

But we did find two tables that suggest Cantor’s contention that all of the money was spent in 2010 is faulty. A 2009 analysis of the stimulus bill by the Congressional Budget Office said the discretionary money would be doled out over a number of years, with 36 percent being spent in 2010.

The CBO published an updated estimate of stimulus spending in January. It indicates that about 34 percent of the "budgetary effects" of the discretionary portion came in 2010. To assume that obligated money has been spent is incorrect.

So let’s suppose 35 percent is the actual figure. That would mean Cantor, under his formula, should have applied only $90 billion of stimulus to last year’s discretionary spending total -- not the full $257 billion.

It would mean discretionary spending, if you include the stimulus, increased 44 percent during the first two years of the Obama administration -- far shy of the "over 80 percent" Cantor claimed.

Allen disputed our calculus, saying only a tiny portion remained unspent at the end of 2010. He referred to CBO documents from earlier this year saying all but about $5 billion in discretionary stimulus money has been "obligated."

The CBO defines obligations as "a legally binding commitment by the federal government that will result in outlays, immediately or in the future."

Contrary to the claim of Cantor’s camp, the CBO documents do not prove most of the money was spent in 2010. One of the reports, in fact, says "most of the discretionary funding provided by ARRA (the stimulus) has been obligated, although outlays may occur in 2011 and later years."

Let’s review:

Cantor said discretionary spending has "increased over 20-some percent in two years if you don’t include the stimulus. If you put in the stimulus, it’s over 80 percent."

Without the stimulus, discretionary spending increased 23.7 percent. So is Cantor right on that part.

But the majority leader runs into trouble when he starts counting discretionary stimulus funds.

Featured Fact-check

Cantor generates his high percentage by lumping in all of the $257 million approved for discretionary stimulus use into 2010 spending. CBO reports indicate that only slightly more than a third of the discretionary stimulus was spent last year.  

That suggests that when you add in the stimulus, discretionary spending increased 44 percent during the first two years of the Obama administration -- not "over 80 percent" as Cantor says.

Cantor’s statement is half right and half wrong. We’ll split the difference and rate it Half True.

Our Sources

Eric Cantor, Fox News interview with Greta Van Susterin, March 17, 2011.

Interviews with Ray Allen, political adviser to Cantor, March 23-29, 2011.

Email interview with Megan Whittemore, deputy press secretary for Cantor, March 22, 2011.

PolitiFactWisconsin, Paul Ryan says U.S. discretionary spending increased 84 percent in the last two years, Nov. 7, 2010.

PolitiFactWisconsin, U.S. Rep. Paul Ryan says Obama increased spending nearly 25 percent in two years, 84 percent when stimulus money is included, January 27, 2011.

Congressional Budget Office, The Budget and Economic Outlook: Fiscal Years 2011 to 2021, pages 12-13, 165.

Congressional Budget Office, Summary of estimate cost of the conference agreement for H.R.1, February 13, 2009.

Congressional Budget Office, Estimate of H.R. 1, March 10, 2011.

Interview with Joshua Gordon, policy director, The Concord Coalition, March 24, 2011.

Interview with Jim Horney, vice president for federal policy, Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, March 25, 2011.

Interview with Roberton Williams,  senior fellow, Tax Policy Center, March 24, 2011.

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