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In closed-door remarks to campaign supporters on April 14, 2011, President Barack Obama looked back in frustration at lengthy negotiations with Republicans over funding to keep the federal government operating.
Obama opined, as a CBS News online story reported, that he expects Republicans to continue using the budget process to "enact their political agenda under the guise of cutting spending."
The president singled out U.S. Rep. Paul Ryan, R-Wis., the House Budget Committee chairman who has authored a long-term deficit-reduction plan.
"When Paul Ryan says his priority is to make sure, you know, he's just being America's accountant, trying to be responsible ...This is the same guy who voted for two wars that were unpaid for, voted for the Bush tax cuts that were unpaid for, voted for the prescription drug bill that cost as much as my health care bill -- but wasn't paid for," Obama told his supporters. "So it's not on the level."
In making the remark, Obama pointed to several big-ticket items approved during the Bush administration while Ryan was in Congress -- ones he says have helped drive the nation’s record deficits.
Given the prominence of the protagonists and the timeliness of the comments, we decided to take a look at Obama’s critique of Ryan.
With the words, Obama is offering an opinion about how Ryan has framed his budget-cutting efforts. We can’t fact-check the president’s opinion about Ryan’s message. But we can focus on the factual assertions, and try to put them into some context.
We started with the White House, which declined to comment, saying the president’s remarks spoke for themselves.
Let’s look at the votes.
There is no dispute Ryan voted for Afghanistan and Iraq war funding; for the major tax cuts enacted under President George W. Bush in 2001 and 2003 (and extended in 2010); and for the new Medicare prescription drug benefit created in 2003.
All were big-ticket items.
But Obama goes a step further to assert that all were "unpaid for." That’s Washington parlance for bills not offset by corresponding spending cuts or tax increases elsewhere in the federal budget.
Budget experts we consulted and the historical record confirm there were no direct offsets built into those bills.
Obama’s claim on the prescription drug bill was slightly different -- that it wasn’t paid for and "cost as much as my health care bill."
Let’s break this into two parts.
Obama appears to refer to the gross outlays needed for the two landmark bills.
For the Medicare prescription drug bill, passed in 2003 and effective in 2006, we found a range of cost estimates for 10 years: $395 billion to $720 billion. The official Congressional Budget Office estimate was the low end.
That was at the time. Now, government estimates show the original cost projections were too high, perhaps by as much as 40 percent, said Jon Gabel, senior fellow in health care research at the National Opinion Research Center.
Obama’s health reform bill -- the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act -- was pricier, with estimates in the $800 billion to $1.4 trillion range. Ryan and Republicans opposed the bill.
But the two measures were passed seven years apart, so inflation may be a factor.
Paul Van de Water, a former Congressional Budget Office official who is now a senior fellow with the left-leaning Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, did an inflation-adjusted comparison and found the Medicare bill is probably two-thirds or three-quarters the cost of the Obama health care measure.
That is, Obama’s health care bill is still hundreds of millions of dollars more costly than the Medicare drug bill.
So the president was off in equating the gross cost of the bills.
On the offset question, the Medicare prescription drug bill, however, indisputably added to the federal deficit. It was not offset by new revenue or other spending cuts.
In contrast, the official government estimate of the 2010 health care law’s impact said it would actually reduce the deficit, in part because of the new taxes it enacts to help offset the cost of expanding health coverage.
The source for that is the nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office.
The CBO’s estimate is hardly undisputed -- Ryan, other Republican leaders and various budget analysts have argued that the CBO’s report was skewed by questionable assumptions given to it by the Obama administration. They contend the law would actually add to the deficit.
Nevertheless, we -- and Congress -- have used CBO estimates as the gold standard on such matters. So Obama has a pretty firm leg to stand on in saying his health bill was paid for while the Medicare bill was not.
That covers the details behind the president’s remarks. In this case, it’s important to put them into their proper context. We consulted several experts and sought Ryan’s take.
Ryan was asked in a recent interview about Obama’s citing the Medicare drug program, the two wars and the Bush tax cuts as major drivers of the deficit.
He disagreed: "We still had these enormous, building, unfunded liabilities, Medicare, Medicaid, Social Security -- I mean, the big drivers of our debt."
His office sent us a defense of his votes on war funding, quoting his budget plan: "Like all categories of government spending, defense spending should be executed with greater efficiency and accountability. But responsible budgeting must never lose sight of the fact that the first responsibility of the federal government is to provide for the defense of the nation."
On the Bush tax cuts, Ryan aides said the congressman believes that "we have deficits because Washington spends too much, not because Americans are taxed too little." He says the tax cuts helped fuel economic growth and bring in more tax revenue.
Indeed, in December, Obama himself backed a compromise with Republicans, including Ryan, that extended the Bush tax cuts.
"Bottom line: Ryan has voted for massive new spending and so has the president," said Tad DeHaven, a budget analyst at the libertarian Cato Institute.
Iraq war costs have topped $1 trillion, said Scott Lilly, former staff director for the House Appropriations Committee and now a research fellow at the left-leaning Center for American Progress. Neither Bush’s war effort in Afghanistan nor Obama’s escalation there has been paid for, both analysts noted.
In April, both Obama and Ryan unveiled long-term deficit reduction plans in the neighborhood of $4 trillion over a decade or more.
So where does this leave us?
The president cherry-picked a handful of votes in an effort to show that Ryan is not pristine on the subject of the deficit.
Obama got it right on Ryan’s support for the big-ticket bills, including war funding, Medicare prescription drugs and the Bush tax cuts. He was also on target in saying that none was offset or "paid for" by spending cuts or tax increases. That’s the main part of his claim.
He was off the mark in asserting that one of the bills -- Medicare prescription drugs -- was as costly as his 2010 health care reform bill.
That puts him at Mostly True.
President Barack Obama, remarks to campaign donors, April 14, 2011
Email interview with Tad DeHaven, budget analyst, Cato Institute, April 22, 2011
Email interview with Scott Lilly, senior fellow, Center for American Progress, April 22, 2011
Interview with Jon Gabel, senior fellow, National Opinion Research Center, April 19, 2011
Interview with Paul Van de Water, senior fellow, Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, April 19, 2011
Email interviews with Kevin Seifert, press secretary, U.S. Rep. Paul Ryan, April 18-22, 2011
Email interview, Conor Sweeney, communications director, House Budget Committee Chairman Paul Ryan, April 19, 2011
Email interview, Mary Mahon, senior public information officer, The Commonwealth Fund, April 19, 2011
Interview with Henry Aaron, senior fellow, Brookings Institution, April 19, 2011
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