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By W. Gardner Selby August 31, 2012

John Cornyn says when Democrats controlled Congress and White House, federal spending as share of economy leapt to 25.2 percent -- a record post-war increase

U.S. Sen. John Cornyn, R-Texas, recently declared an "inconvenient factoid" about Democrats and spending.

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Cornyn’s Aug. 21, 2012, Facebook post says next that "when Ds controlled Congress and WH: federal spending as a share of GDP leapt from 18.2 percent in 2001 to 25.2 percent in 2009 (this was the largest such increase in ANY 8 year period since WWII)."

That is, Cornyn says, federal spending in comparison to the nation’s economic production, or Gross Domestic Product, spiked.

Asked how the senator reached his conclusion, his spokesman, Scott Gosnell, pointed us to a chart in a report by the Office of Management and Budget, the budget-policy arm of the executive branch. And according to the chart, federal outlays were equivalent to 18.2 percent of the GDP in 2001 and 25.2 percent of the GDP in 2009, as Cornyn says. Such spending dipped to 24.1 percent of the GDP in 2010 and 2011, according to the chart, which appears on a White House web page in connection with President Barack Obama’s proposed budget for the 2013 fiscal year.

And was the 39 percent increase over that period the greatest since World War II?

Seems so.

Federal outlays were equal to 9.8 percent of the GDP in 1940. They were 43.6 percent of the GDP in 1943 and 1944, the chart says, or more than quadruple the 1940 ratio..

From 1947 through 1974, by our calculation, the ratio averaged 18 percent. It was 20 percent to nearly 24 percent each year from 1975 through 1997, dropping to 18.5 percent in 1999. In other words, we did not spot any eight-year post-WW II spikes bigger than the one underscored by Cornyn.

Then again, we noticed, federal spending as a share of GDP averaged 20 percent over his cited years, not much greater than in previous years. Also, in two years, 2004 and 2007, federal spending compared with the GDP was slightly down from the previous year.

Next, we looked into whether Democrats controlled Congress and the White House over the cited years, as Cornyn says.

Not exactly.

A Democrat, Bill Clinton, was president for about four months at the start of the 2001 fiscal year. But George W. Bush, a Republican, was president from Jan. 20, 2001, until Obama, a Democrat, was inaugurated on Jan. 20, 2009. Obama accounts for a little more than eight months of the cited years.

And did Democrats rule Congress over those years?

Occasionally, though Republicans were dominant for longer spells.

As we noted in an earlier fact check, the GOP controlled the House from 1995 through 2006, while Democrats controlled the House from 2007 through 2010, as detailed on a House web page. According to a Senate web page, Republicans were the upper chamber’s majority party in 2000 through early June 2001 and again from Nov. 12, 2002, through 2006. Democrats have comprised the majority since 2007.

So, a Republican was president for all but one of the cited years and Republicans held the House majority for six of the nine years and a Senate majority for about four years and seven months of the nine years -- with Democrats holding the Senate majority for four years and five months.

Still, Democrats held House and Senate majorities from 2007 through 2010 -- and Obama was president for 2009 and 2010. Over this more limited time period, the ratio of spending to the GDP escalated from nearly 21 percent to 25.2 percent before dropping to 24.1 percent.

We asked Cornyn’s office about the mixed-bag dominance of Democrats in his cited period. Gosnell replied by email that Cornyn "was making the point that out of the 8-point increase in outlays between 2001-2009, the majority of that increase (5.5 points) occurred in just three years – 2007-2009 – the same three years the Democrats controlled both chambers and then the WH in 2009. The point is: the huge jump in outlays occurred with D’s in charge."

That’s an interesting focus, yet not what Cornyn wrote on Facebook.

The theme of Gosnell’s reply, that the brunt of the spending-to-GDP uptick occurred when Democrats were dominant, was explored in a June 4, 2012, article by our colleagues at, headlined: "Obama’s Spending: ‘Inferno’ or Not?" That article says the one-year 19 percent spending surge in fiscal 2009 "was mostly due to appropriations and policies that were already in place when Obama took office" in January 2009, the fourth month of the fiscal year. Obama’s spending initiatives, the story says, increased that year’s spending by up to $203 billion, or well under half the year’s overall increase, which was caused in part by bank bailout legislation approved by President Bush.

The article mentions a May 24, 2012, analysis in Forbes by Daniel J. Mitchell, a senior fellow at the libertarian-leaning Cato Institute, giving responsibility for even less of the 2009 increase to Obama. Generally, Mitchell concluded that since President Lyndon Johnson’s tenure, George W. Bush shakes out, like Johnson and Richard Nixon, a "relatively profligate" president.

We asked Mitchell about Cornyn’s recent statement blaming Democrats for the spending-to-GDP increase. Mitchell replied by email that while most of the key spending increases occurred after Democrats won control of Congress in the 2006 elections, the bumps also had Bush’s approval, "so both parties deserve blame."

Finally, the story by says that the health care overhaul Obama signed into law in 2010 calls for a new spending wave, starting in 2014, to subsidize coverage for millions of Americans who would otherwise lack it -- adding an estimated $110 billion to federal outlays in fiscal 2015, and more in later years. Significantly, too, the story says, government revenue receipts are running well below historical averages.

"It is the combination of historically high spending and low revenues that is producing the current string of trillion-dollar annual deficits, and piling up debt," said. "Those who blame deficits solely on spending ignore the other side of the ledger."

Our ruling

Cornyn said that when Democrats controlled Congress and the White House, federal spending as a share of the GDP leapt from 18.2 percent in 2001 to 25.2 percent in 2009 -- the largest such increase in any eight-year period since World War II.

Those percentages and the claim to a post-war record are correct. However, Democrats were in control of Congress solely in the last few years of the period and held the presidency for only eight of the 108 cited months. All told, Cornyn’s claim has the math right but errs significantly by laying all the blame on Democrats. We rate it Mostly False.

Our Sources

Chart, "SUMMARY OF RECEIPTS, OUTLAYS, AND SURPLUSES OR DEFICITS (–) AS PERCENTAGES OF GDP: 1930–2017," included in historical tables with "The President's Budget for Fiscal Year 2013", White House, Office of Management and Budget, Undated (accessed Aug. 24, 2012)

Email, response to PolitiFact Texas, Scott Gosnell, deputy press secretary, U.S. Sen. John Cornyn, Aug. 27, 2012

Article, "Obama’s Spending: ‘Inferno’ or Not?",, June 4, 2012

Email, response to PolitiFact Texas, Daniel J. Mitchell, senior fellow, Cato Institute, Aug. 30, 2012

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More by W. Gardner Selby

John Cornyn says when Democrats controlled Congress and White House, federal spending as share of economy leapt to 25.2 percent -- a record post-war increase

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