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Angie Drobnic Holan
By Angie Drobnic Holan January 27, 2011

Kent Conrad said 84 percent of the budget is Social Security, Medicare and defense

The public needs to accept that there are no easy solutions to the nation's budget crisis, said Sen. Kent Conrad, D-N.D., on This Week with Christiane Amanpour on Jan. 23, 2011.

"The American people say, don't touch Social Security, don't touch Medicare, don't cut defense," Conrad said. "That's 84 percent of the federal budget. If you can't touch 84 percent of the federal budget -- and, by the way, they also don't want to touch revenue -- you're down to 16 percent of the budget at a time we're borrowing 40 cents of every dollar we spend.

"So, you know, there needs to be leadership to help the American people understand how serious this problem is and that it's going to take a lot more than cutting foreign aid and taxing the rich. You're not going to solve the problem that way."

Conrad was one of three senators who appeared on This Week to discuss bipartisanship. Sen. Joe Lieberman, I-Conn., and Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison, R-Texas, also appeared. All three have announced they intend to retire in 2012.

It's true that people don't like the idea of cutting Social Security or Medicare. A CNN poll recently found 78 percent said Social Security should be protected from significant cuts, and 81 percent said Medicare should be protected. The picture was mixed for defense, with 49 percent saying it could be cut and 50 percent saying protect it, a statistical tie. We also checked Conrad's statement that  we borrow 40 cents for every dollar we spend in a separate fact-check.

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We wanted to check Conrad's numbers on the budget, particularly his statement that Social Security, Medicare and defense constituted 84 percent of the federal budget. That number seemed alarmingly high. As we dug into the numbers, though, we found a few discrepancies that needed explaining.

We began our calculations by looking at the current budget. If you add up defense spending, Medicare and Social Security, that currently equals 51 percent of spending. Add in spending on veterans, and it rises to 54 percent. (Add it up for yourself using the White House's budget tables.) We ran this number by two budget experts who confirmed it for us.

We contacted Conrad's office, though, and a spokesman said that Conrad's point was that it is very hard to cut the budget if you're only willing to look at discretionary spending, which is the money that Congress appropriates every year. If you leave defense spending out, you're left with an even smaller piece of the pie, which budget wonks call non-defense discretionary spending, which is 16 percent of the budget. (In Washington, people will even abbreviate non-defense discretionary spending to "NDD.") It's basically the easiest part of the budget to cut.

Conrad was talking about the hard part: the mandatory spending programs, plus defense spending. And he short-handed mandatory spending to just Social Security and Medicare, which are the largest two programs in the category.

And while it's true that Social Security and Medicare are the largest part of mandatory spending, they are not all of it. Mandatory spending includes other entitlements -- benefits people have a right to under the law if they meet the requirements. That means programs like Medicaid, food stamps, welfare, child nutrition care, the children's health insurance program, supplemental security income, veterans pensions, a portion of the costs of health care reform and refundable tax credits for low-income workers.

You have to include those other programs to get to 84 percent. Strictly speaking, Medicare, Social Security and defense spending only make up 54 percent of spending.

In rating Conrad's statement, his numbers are definitely off. Social Security, Medicare and defense spending are not 84 percent of the budget, they're closer to 54 percent. Conrad may have known what he was talking about -- just the manadatory spending -- but we're not sure the average listener would. Still, his overall point is correct: Medicare, Social Security and defense represent huge parts of the budget, more than half, and it's difficult if not impossible to balance the budget if these three items are off the table. That's enough to tip the balance on our ruling; we rate his statement Mostly True.

Our Sources, CNN Poll: Cutting biggest govt. spending programs off the table, Jan. 25, 2011

The White House Office of Budget and Management, Historical Tables

The White House Office of Budget and Management, Table 3.2—Outlays by Function and Subfunction: 1962–2015

The White House Office of Budget and Management, Historical Tables, Budget of the U.S. Government, Fiscal Year 2011

The Congressional Budget Office, A presentation on The Economic and Budget Outlook, May 13, 2010

E-mail interview with Brian Riedl, Grover Hermann Fellow in Federal Budgetary Affairs, The Heritage Foundation

E-mail interview with Joshua Gordon, policy director, The Concord Coalition

Interview with Stu Nagurka, spokesman for Sen. Kent Conrad

The Concord Coalition, Federal Government Spending, Fiscal Year 2010

The Concord Coalition, Federal Government Income, Fiscal Year 2010

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Kent Conrad said 84 percent of the budget is Social Security, Medicare and defense

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