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During the Dec. 15, 2011, Republican presidential debate in Sioux City, Iowa, Newt Gingrich touted his record when he was speaker of the U.S. House of Representatives.
Gingrich’s comment came after moderator Bret Baier said that former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney "just yesterday said you're an unreliable conservative. Now, obviously, he's your opponent. … But even Iowa Gov. Terry Branstad said today he respects you greatly, but he openly questioned whether you had the discipline and focus to be president."
Gingrich responded, "Well, those are two different questions. .... I have a 90 percent American Conservative Union voting record for 20 years. I balanced the budget for four straight years, paid off $405 billion in debt. Pretty conservative. … I think on the conservative thing, it's sort of laughable to suggest that somebody who campaigned with Ronald Reagan and with Jack Kemp and has had a 30-year record of conservatism, is somehow not a conservative?"
The claim that Gingrich "balanced the budget for four straight years (and) paid off $405 billion in debt" sounded familiar. It turns out that we originally fact-checked it when Gingrich made it on May 11, 2011, when he released a video to launch his presidential campaign.
In that video, he said, "for four years, we balanced the budget and paid off $405 billion in debt." With soft music in the background, Gingrich said with a smile, "We’ve done it before. We can do it again."
Gingrich was speaker from January 1995 to January 1999, when he was a Republican congressman from Atlanta’s suburbs.
First, the balanced budget.
The federal budget runs on a fiscal year calendar that begins October 1 and ends September 30. During fiscal years 1996 and 1997 -- the first two that Gingrich helped shape as speaker -- there were deficits: $107 billion in 1996 and about $22 billion in 1997.
By fiscal year 1998, the federal budget did reach a surplus of $69 billion. And in fiscal year 1999 -- which Gingrich can claim some responsibility for, even though he was out as speaker for most of the fiscal year -- it was in surplus as well, to the tune of $126 billion.
But that’s only two balanced budgets he can claim credit for. The federal government did run four consecutive surpluses, but for the last two of those -- fiscal years 2000 and 2001 -- Gingrich was no longer serving in the House.
Now for Gingrich’s comments about the debt.
The national debt was slightly above $4.8 trillion when Gingrich became House speaker in January 1995. By the time he left the position in January 1999, the debt was more than $5.6 trillion. That’s an increase, not a decrease.
If you look just at the two years Gingrich can claim credit for where the federal government was in surplus -- fiscal years 1998 and 1999 -- the government did pay down about $200 billion in debt. But that would be cherry-picking, because over the full four years of his speakership, the debt rose by about $800 billion.
A final note: It’s PolitiFact’s policy not to focus solely on the accuracy of the numbers in political attacks (or, as in this case, efforts to claim political credit) but also to determine whether blame or credit for the results is justified.
With this statement, even if Gingrich’s numbers had been correct, his language suggested that he deserved sole credit for the achievement, when in fact it was a collective accomplishment with a Democratic president, Bill Clinton, and the Republican-controlled U.S. Senate. That further downgrades the accuracy of his claim.
Gingrich was off on both claims concerning the budget. The budget was indeed balanced for four years, but it’s a stretch for him to take credit for more than two of those years. As for paying off $405 billion in debt, the data we found shows the debt actually increased during Gingrich’s four-year tenure as speaker by more than $800 billion. We rate Gingrich’s claim False.
Newt Gingrich, comments at a Republican presidential debate in Sioux City, Iowa, Dec. 15, 2011
PolitiFact, "Newt Gingrich inaccurate in budget, debt claims in video announcement," May 11, 2011
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