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During an interview on the MSNBC show The Daily Rundown, House Minority Whip Steny Hoyer, D-Md., addressed the previous day’s House vote to raise the debt ceiling.
Hoyer blamed Republicans for turning the vote -- which failed by a wide margin -- into a political game.
The "premise" of the debt ceiling vote, Hoyer said, "was we have this debt because of President (Barack) Obama's policies. That's simply not true, and the world knows it's not true, and the Republicans know it's not true. We went from a $5.6 trillion surplus that George Bush inherited to over ... $11-plus trillion debt when George (W.) Bush left office. So to say it is Obama's debt and that the debt limit needs to be extended because of Obama is simply not true."
A reader asked us to check Hoyer’s claim that the United States "went from a $5.6 trillion surplus that George Bush inherited to over ... $11-plus-trillion debt when George Bush left office."
Here’s the way we initially looked at it. We turned to a historical table published annually by the Office of Management and Budget. The table reports that during fiscal year 2001 -- which included much of Bush’s first year in office, and which was based on a budget assembled during the term of his Democratic predecessor, Bill Clinton -- there was a surplus of $128 billion. So Hoyer was right that there was a surplus, but it was only 2 percent of the amount Hoyer indicated it was.
Meanwhile, according to the Treasury Department, the level of debt when Bush left office on Jan. 20, 2009, was either $6.307 trillion (the amount of debt held by the public) or $10.627 trillion (the amount of publicly held debt plus debt held by the government, including the Social Security and Medicare trust funds). With the latter measure, Hoyer’s in the ballpark.
But when we spoke to Hoyer’s office, they said he was actually using a different yardstick for the first figure.
They said Hoyer was referring to the $5.61 trillion in surpluses that the Congressional Budget Office -- the nonpartisan number-crunching arm of Congress -- had predicted in January 2001 would materialize over the next 10 years, based on the fiscal outlook at the end of Clinton’s tenure. (Hoyer’s office confirmed our conclusion about the second figure.)
The CBO number provides support for Hoyer’s claim, but we think that his failure to make clear that he was comparing a projected surplus to the deficit weaken his argument.
Given Hoyer’s wording -- that when Bush came into office he "inherited" a $5.6 trillion surplus, we think a viewer would assume that it’s both a tangible figure, and that it refers to a specific point in time. In reality, it’s neither. It’s a projection of future surpluses, and it’s a figure that covers a 10-year period. In fact, the final two years of those surpluses wouldn’t even fall within Bush’s two terms in office.
There is some merit in Hoyer’s larger point -- that Bush came into office with a rosy fiscal outlook and left with one that was far less so. And he’s pretty close when he says that Bush left an "$11-plus trillion debt" when he departed the Oval Office.
Still, Hoyer left out enough qualifiers -- that the number was a projection, and that it covered 10 years -- that we believe viewers would take away an exaggerated impression of the fiscal picture Bush inherited. So we’re giving Hoyer’s comment a rating of Half True.
Steny Hoyer, interview on MSNBC’s The Daily Rundown, June 1, 2011
Treasury Department, "Debt to the Penny" calculator, accessed June 1, 2011
Office of Management and Budget, "Table 1.1—Summary of Receipts, Outlays, and Surpluses or Deficits (-): 1789–2016," accessed June 1, 2011
Congressional Budget Office, "The Budget and Economic Outlook: Fiscal Years 2002-2011," January 2001
Interview with Katie Grant, spokeswoman for Rep. Steny Hoyer, June 1, 2011
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