Republicans have been attacking President Barack Obama for proposing an expensive health care overhaul on top of a costly economic stimulus. But some Democrats have been growing frustrated at the GOP attacks, saying that the same Republican Party agreed to massive spending and deficits when it controlled the presidency and Congress.
Donna Brazile, a Democratic strategist and pundit, gave voice to these frustrations on Aug. 2, 2009, on CNN’s State of the Union.
"The Bush administration doubled the national debt and it did not help the middle class with the basics of their everyday living," Brazile said. "So we're all concerned about the deficit, but this is needed investment to ensure that we give Americans who have lost their jobs a lifeline, whether it's providing food stamps, whether it's giving states (money to continue) Medicaid funding, or giving these American workers the ability to go out there and retrain and retool themselves."
She continued, “We spent $1.3 trillion on tax cuts for the wealthy that we could not afford. We spent trillions on a war that we could not afford. We spent trillions on Medicare with the expensive program that gives money to the drug companies, and nobody raised a peep about the deficit.”
We won’t pass judgment on the more subjective issue of whether the tax cuts, the war costs or the Medicare drug plan were, as Brazile, claims, unaffordable. But we think it’s worth checking to see whether Brazile did the math right. We'll take her assertions one by one.
On the tax cuts, Brazile was right: President George W. Bush’s 2001 tax package was expected to reduce federal revenues by roughly $1.3 trillion, according to Congress’ Joint Committee on Taxation, the key arbiter for the cost of tax legislation.
Brazile also asserted that the Bush tax cuts were for the wealthy. The Joint Committee on Taxation found the changes in the tax rates were roughly the same among different groups, but analyses using other measurements have found a disproportionate benefit to wealthier Americans; even supporters of the tax cuts conceded that the rich, under a system of progressive taxation, already paid a large share of the tax burden, and thus reaped a disproportionate share of the gains when taxes were cut. The Tax Policy Center, a joint project of the centrist-to-liberal Urban Institute and Brookings Institution, looked at all of the Bush-backed tax cuts enacted between 2001 and 2008 and found that the richest one-fifth of the population saw its after-tax income rise by 5.4 percent, compared to 0.7 percent for the bottom one-fifth. Meanwhile, the richest 1 percent saw its after-tax income rise by 7.3 percent.
Brazile’s second claim was that "a war" cost trillions of dollars. She wasn't specific about which war, but since most assessments of this question have combined the costs for the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan — in part because untangling those costs is so difficult — we'll look at them together.
A partial answer to this question comes from a May 15, 2009, report by the Congressional Research Service, “The Cost of Iraq, Afghanistan and Other Global War on Terror Operations Since 9/11.” That report found that $864 billion had been spent for “military operations, base security, reconstruction, foreign aid, embassy costs and veterans’ health care.” That number can be updated to take into account the slightly more than $77 billion allocated for ongoing war operations in May, when Obama signed a supplemental war spending bill. Finally, one can also include the $130 billion sought by the president for regular fiscal year 2010 for operations in Afghanistan.
In all, these three numbers add to about $1.07 trillion — crossing the 13-digit threshold, but not reaching the multiple "trillions" suggested by Brazile.
Some budget analysts believe future costs will ultimately hike the overall pricetag into the trillions. Former Clinton administration economic adviser and Nobel laureate Joseph Stiglitz, writing with Harvard University scholar Linda J. Bilmes, published a book last year titled The Three Trillion Dollar War: The True Cost of the Iraq Conflict . It includes $700 billion for veterans’ costs that exceed peacetime levels, including disability payments and health care coverage; $1 trillion for the interest on funds borrowed to finance the war; and another $1 trillion to cover the loss of life and severe disability caused by the war, including the provision of caregivers for wounded veterans and the removal of productive assets from the economy. Economists we spoke with said it's reasonable to include those costs in the ultimate pricetag. But most of that additional money has not yet been "spent," as Brazile claimed.
Finally, we looked at how much the Medicare drug plan has cost the taxpayers.
According to the 2008 annual report of the Medicare Board of Trustees, a total of $549 billion is expected to be spent on the program in fiscal years 2006 through 2015. (Budget wonks take note: We did not include the full amount paid out by the drug plan, but rather took that number and subtracted the costs footed by beneficiary premiums and transfers from the states. Our number includes what was actually paid by the taxpayers through the general treasury.)
Because costs for the program are expected to rise as the years go on, the total amount spent will eventually cross the $1 trillion threshold. But during the standard, 10-year budget window, the amount only gets a little more than halfway to that level. And it will be many, many years before it hits "trillions," as Brazile suggested. So she is incorrect to say that amount has been spent.
So let’s recap. The numbers support her broad point that there was lots of spending when Republicans controlled the White House and Congress. But individually, the accuracy of her assertions is more mixed. Brazile correctly described the cost of the 2001 Bush tax cut, but she overstated the cost of the wars. Although the pricetag may ultimately be trillions, that hasn't been spent yet. And she exaggerated the 10-year cost of the Medicare drug plan. So we rate her claim Half True.