"Comprehensive immigration reform, the bill we had back in 2013 ... brought the debt down $158 billion."

Amy Klobuchar on Monday, February 18th, 2019 in a CNN town hall

Would the 2013 immigration bill have saved $158 billion, as Amy Klobuchar said?

Democratic presidential candidate Amy Klobuchar addresses the studio audience during a CNN town hall on Feb. 18, 2019.

Sen. Amy Klobuchar, D-Minn., a presidential candidate, pitched immigration legislation as a way to ease the federal fiscal picture during a CNN town hall in New Hampshire.

During the Feb. 19 town hall, a participant asked what Klobuchar’s budget proposal would look like if she became president. One of the elements she mentioned was her support for overhauling the nation’s immigration system -- a change that, she said, would save the federal government money.

Klobuchar said, "One thing alone -- comprehensive immigration reform, the bill we had back in 2013, supported by none other than Grover Norquist. Why? Because it brought the debt down $158 billion, OK? That is how much it would save."

She was referring to S. 744, the Border Security, Economic Opportunity, and Immigration Modernization Act, which was the fruit of a round of negotiations between a group of bipartisan senators known as the "Gang of Eight." The bill would have given many undocumented immigrants a path to citizenship, and it would have created or expanded other forms of legal immigration. Meanwhile, it would have provided a large increase in border security.

The bill passed the Senate on June 27, 2013, by a 68-32 margin. It never advanced through the House, meaning it never became law, even though President Barack Obama was willing to sign it.

Klobuchar was one of many Senate Democrats who voted for the bill. (Her mention of Grover Norquist refers to a prominent anti-tax conservative activist who supported the bill.)

We decided to take a closer look at Klobuchar’s statement that the 2013 bill "brought the debt down $158 billion."

We found that Klobuchar is justified in saying the bill was judged to be a net positive for the federal budget, but she used the wrong word to describe its fiscal impact. The bill would have reduced future net federal spending, but it would not have reduced actual debt.

The source of the $158 billion figure is an analysis by the Congressional Budget Office, the nonpartisan arm of Congress that is tasked with publishing the official cost estimates of bills being considered in the House and Senate.

The CBO cost estimate for the version of the bill that passed the Senate said it would, on net, shrink federal budget deficits by $158 billion in the 10-year period 2014 and 2023.

And over the following decade, from 2024 to 2033, CBO projected that the decrease in the deficit would be bigger -- $685 billion.

In making these calculations, CBO noted that federal spending would increase in some ways, but that this increase would be more than balanced out by increases in revenues. For instance, newly legalized individuals would be eligible for benefits, costing the treasury. But once their work status was legalized, these workers would start to pay taxes, thus increasing federal revenues by more than those workers would draw in benefits.

Opponents of the bill, particularly conservatives, pointed out other aspects of the CBO’s analysis that they found worrisome, including the projection that average wages for the labor force as a whole would be 0.1 percent lower in 2023, because many of the newly legalized individuals would be less skilled than the workforce as a whole. (Wages, however, would be 0.5 percent higher 10 years later, in 2033.)

So what’s wrong with Klobuchar’s wording? She said "debt" when she should have said "deficit" -- the metric that CBO was looking at. The difference isn’t trivial.

"Deficit" refers to an annual shortfall, in which outlays exceed revenues. The "debt" is the cumulative total of all past deficits, minus any surpluses. Even when deficits shrink, the debt still grows, as long as deficits don’t shrink all the way to zero (as they wouldn’t have with this bill). The cumulative debt only starts going down once you have a surplus.

The Klobuchar campaign noted that her point was that as a result of the bill, the debt would be $158 billion lower than it would have been otherwise, according to CBO’s projections. She has a point, but her specific words didn’t provide that nuance.

Our ruling

Klobuchar said, "Comprehensive immigration reform, the bill we had back in 2013 ... brought the debt down $158 billion."

The bill would have brought down projected future deficits by a total of $158 billion over 10 years. But the debt would have still gone up, just at a slower rate than it would have otherwise. We rate the statement Half True.

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"Comprehensive immigration reform, the bill we had back in 2013 ... brought the debt down $158 billion."
a CNN town hall
Monday, February 18, 2019