The debt charts Nancy Pelosi doesn’t want you to see

For some reason, some people decided to resuscitate a chart created by Nancy Pelosi’s office about presidential responsibility for increases in the national debt. I say “for some reason,” because fact-checkers at PolitiFact had already given Pelosi a “pants on fire” rating for the chart because it massaged the underlying data and assigned it incorrectly.

It didn’t take long for the chart to be slapped down again when it resurfaced last week. But its brief revival did make me wonder how such a chart would look if it were drawn to assign responsibility for the debt to speakers of the House. There’s good reason to look at it from a congressional perspective, since Congress must pass budget legislation before the president can sign it. And it’s simpler to look at it from the House perspective, because the balance between Republicans and Democrats in the Senate changed mid-session a few times during the early 2000s.

Using the same data sources and parameters PolitiFact used to debunk Pelosi’s presidential-debt chart and declare President Obama “the undisputed debt king of the last five presidents,” here’s what I found:

PelosiChart1A

Source: Office of Management and Budget, "Table 7.1—Federal Debt at the End of Year: 1940–2016"

No wonder Pelosi is so eager to look at things from a presidential perspective. (Two technical notes: Aside from PolitiFact’s parameters, I did the following: I gave responsibility for the 1990 budget to Tom Foley, rather than his predecessor, Jim Wright, who resigned in June 1989, for simplicity’s sake. And I left out John Boehner, because we don’t have full-year GDP data for 2011.)

It doesn’t get any better for her if we look at increases on an annual basis — which arguably is the fairer way to look at them, given that Pelosi presided over the House for less time than Foley, Tip O’Neill or Dennis Hastert. Here’s the chart on an annual basis:

PelosiChart2A

Source: Office of Management and Budget, "Table 7.1—Federal Debt at the End of Year: 1940–2016"

Again, not good at all for Pelosi.

But what about the effects of the Great Recession? Well, I ran the numbers a third time, dividing Pelosi’s tenure into “Pelosi I” from January 2007 to January 2009, and “Pelosi II” from January 2009 to January 2011. Here are the results, again on an annualized basis:

PelosiChart3A

Source: Office of Management and Budget, "Table 7.1—Federal Debt at the End of Year: 1940–2016"

Her first two years were still the worst we had seen in three decades.

It’s true that debt as a percentage of GDP grew during the 108th Congress — the third of four when Hastert was speaker — but it didn’t grow as fast then as during Pelosi’s first two years. And the ratio fell during the other three periods under Hastert.

Why do Democrats, who kept her as their House leader even after the debacle in the midterm elections last year, still think she’s the best person for the job?

– By Kyle Wingfield

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87 comments Add your comment

Jefferson

October 3rd, 2011
12:35 pm

Blame games solve no problems, but the GOP keep causing them.

pressgang

October 3rd, 2011
12:44 pm

How about you overlay the sources of debt such as 2 wars, unfunded drug prescriptions etc and which president was in office at the time.

Jimmy62

October 3rd, 2011
12:47 pm

If only her bar was twice or three times higher than it is. According to Paul Krugman all our problems would be solved.

Jimmy62

October 3rd, 2011
12:48 pm

Pressgang: The interesting thing about the prescription drug thing is that 1. Most conservatives including myself opposed it at the time, and 2. It’s one of the very few large government programs that hasn’t busted it’s budget but actually stayed in line with estimates.

hsn

October 3rd, 2011
12:49 pm

I thought deficit and debt don’t matter especially in times of war!
Or, do they only matter when the White House occupant is a Democrat?

ragnar danneskjold

October 3rd, 2011
12:52 pm

Don't Tread

October 3rd, 2011
12:52 pm

“…PolitiFact had already given Pelosi a “pants on fire” rating for the chart because it massaged the underlying data and assigned it incorrectly”

When politicians resort to outright lying and manipulating the numbers to support those lies, what do you expect?

“Why do Democrats, who kept her as their House leader even after the debacle in the midterm elections last year, still think she’s the best person for the job?”

Because it’s real easy to fool 53% of the population some of the time, and 40% of it all the time.

A Conservative Voice

October 3rd, 2011
12:58 pm

Why do Democrats, who kept her as their House leader even after the debacle in the midterm elections last year, still think she’s the best person for the job?

Probably because they’re all “Idiots”, “Fools” and worst of all “Liberal Fools and Idiots”

buck@gon

October 3rd, 2011
1:04 pm

You mean Gingrich and Hastert both had a net reduction on the debt?

Wow!

Good stuff, Kyle. I hope that this is true. It’s another round in the chamber to fire at the liberal/progressive/communists.

JF McNamara

October 3rd, 2011
1:09 pm

I don’t doubt she’s a big spender, but this certainly doesn’t prove it.

1. Didn’t GDP fall because of the recession making her first bar higher?
2. Why didn’t you net out the crisis decision spending and do an Apples to Apples?
3. The fact that spending decreased as a percent of GDP under the two prior Repubs is two fold effect.
A. GDP was expanding rapidly making them look better
B. If they were not spending enough to purchase what we needed, simply raising to that level of spending would make Pelosi worse.

voiceofreason

October 3rd, 2011
1:13 pm

Of course, this chart is meaningless, since the cost of both wars was off the books for 5 years. Squaring up the accounting for the American people does not make it ‘your debt’.

The ‘Party of personal responsibility’ ought to show some.

JF McNamara

October 3rd, 2011
1:16 pm

buck@gon,

No, the chart is a very poor and confusing chart. It is not in real dollars. It is as a percent of GDP. If the economy is good, it makes the speaker at the time look good.

ragnar danneskjold

October 3rd, 2011
1:30 pm

Dear JF, if the speaker is good, it makes the economy look good.

justascientist

October 3rd, 2011
1:30 pm

Why is this in my in-box for Google News? It is not news it is just an opinion with some dubious statistics. As I understand it, the wars were not on the books for a while so comparing years and speakers is not the whole story. I don’t like it when politicians keep two sets of books. And Google News should do better. Perhaps they received some threats or something? Why is this here?

Kyle Wingfield

October 3rd, 2011
1:33 pm

pressgang: Remind everyone when the wars started and when Medicare Part D was passed. What did the debt-to-GDP ratio look like in the first few years afterward? Not defending those from a budgeting perspective, but their effect on the debt isn’t as great as your comment implies.

Cameron Roberts

October 3rd, 2011
1:33 pm

Um there is a denominator when you say as a % of GDP aka this chart has very little to do with the role of the speaker of house and a lot to do with the macroeconomy.

Cameron Roberts

October 3rd, 2011
1:35 pm

Are you saying Pelosi is at fault for the sputtering GDP figures? Because if you are not saying that, and you don’t back that claim up at all, then you’re not saying anything worth listening to.

Steve

October 3rd, 2011
1:35 pm

Meaningless data.

Jim Crowe

October 3rd, 2011
1:36 pm

Most of the debt in this country was created under two presidents.

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/National_debt_by_U.S._presidential_terms

Reagan and George W Bush.

Case Closed.

williebkind

October 3rd, 2011
1:37 pm

How can anyone defend Pelosi? How? You are so deep in your ideology that you try to use reason to defend your decision. Your ideology has no reason–just feelings.

Kyle Wingfield

October 3rd, 2011
1:38 pm

buck@gon: They had that effect on the debt *as compared to GDP*.

JF: The charts are not confusing; they’re labeled perfectly clearly. Now, is the debt-to-GDP ratio a perfect measurement? Nothing is perfect — one can always come up with a reason for picking a different metric — but it is a pretty useful measurement in terms of determining whether the debt is sustainable. The answer to why I chose it is that I simply went with what PolitiFact chose as the parameters. I thought that was the most neutral choice (as opposed to trying to arrange the numbers to produce a certain outcome, as PolitiFact demonstrated Pelosi’s office had done).

Jim Crowe

October 3rd, 2011
1:40 pm

Start two wars with absolutely no idea how to end them and giving huge tax cuts to the rich = Disaster

( When you send young men and women into harms way you better know how to get them out instead of just saying that you will be greeted with roses and chocolates )

Kyle Wingfield

October 3rd, 2011
1:43 pm

As for the questions in your 1:09, JF:

1. GDP didn’t fall on an annual basis until 2009.
2. See above answer about why I chose the parameters.
3. Certainly, GDP growth helps keep deficits in check, and therefore debt as well. That’s why I broke out Pelosi’s record into 2007-09 and 2009-11. I would not agree with the notion that we were “not spending enough to purchase what we needed.” You might disagree with what was purchased and what wasn’t, but spending in aggregate was plenty high during the 2000s.

Kyle Wingfield

October 3rd, 2011
1:44 pm

voiceofreason: Your comment (”off the books”) might apply to deficits. This is public debt, which accumulates and is measured regardless to budgeting tricks.

Kyle Wingfield

October 3rd, 2011
1:45 pm

justascientist: “Threats”? Are you serious??

Kyle Wingfield

October 3rd, 2011
1:47 pm

Cameron: The numerator counts, too, you know. All I did in this little exercise was take the same kind of look at speakers that Pelosi took at presidents, modified only to use the parameters PolitiFact used in giving Pelosi’s efforts a “pants on fire” ratings.

Kyle Wingfield

October 3rd, 2011
1:47 pm

Steve: It’s always “meaningless” when you don’t like the outcome.

Kyle Wingfield

October 3rd, 2011
1:48 pm

Jim: Yes, by all means, let’s just rely on Wikipedia for everything.

UGA 1999

October 3rd, 2011
1:53 pm

Shouldnt Pelosi be checking into an assisted living facility soon?

Rafe Hollister

October 3rd, 2011
1:54 pm

Kyle, great work, but I’m sure you know you will never settle the argument with the Liberals/guys like JF, who will always pull out some contradictory stat or question how yours were derived. They love to assign 2009 to Bush even though Obama signed the bill.

Jefferson, so why is blame bad when Kyle or a conservative does it, but Oblama has made it the cornerstone of his regime? I mean he even blamed the hurricane and earthquake for his economic failures. The bloggers on here still blame Bush for this recession even though Oblama said the recession was over some time ago and we were in recovery. Oops, another one is here and it is Bush’s fault as well, right.

UGA 1999

October 3rd, 2011
1:56 pm

Rafe….it is part of the culture that has been massaged on the left….they accept no responsiblity for anything. THis is why they are in the mess they are in today.

Jim Crowe

October 3rd, 2011
1:57 pm

Steve: It’s always “meaningless” when you don’t like the outcome.

Jim: Yes, by all means, let’s just rely on Wikipedia for everything.

Now who doesn’t like the outcome ???

Braves

October 3rd, 2011
1:59 pm

Enter your comments here

Lil' Barry the blowhard (but not as much a blowhard as lil' Barry bailout (revised downward, then upward, then in a circle)

October 3rd, 2011
2:02 pm

There are lies. Then damned lies. Then statistics. Then wingfield, he the great lying, obfuscating, ignorant, with a side of stupid, economic wunderkind.

Jim Crowe

October 3rd, 2011
2:04 pm

This was the National debt when W took office

Jan. 20, 2001: $5,727,776,738,304.64

This is what is was when he left

Jan. 20, 2009: $10,626,877,048,913.08

Funny how it wasn’t a problem back then. It only matters when a Democrat is in office and Republicans know they can pander to the base about it.

UGA 1999

October 3rd, 2011
2:04 pm

Lil barry……can you breathe now?

Kyle Wingfield

October 3rd, 2011
2:10 pm

Jim: PolitiFact used those very same numbers. And then offered a four-paragraph explanation of why they’re insufficient information to consider. Now, you are of course free to disagree with PolitiFact’s reasoning. But it’s not much of an argument to simply restate the raw numbers that, as PolitiFact explained, need further context.

UGA 1999

October 3rd, 2011
2:15 pm

Kyle….it is like I continue to say on every blog. The left refuses to discuss facts. They only refer to their propaganda machines that spew lies.

Darwin

October 3rd, 2011
2:18 pm

Because you don’t care about deficits when Republicans are running the country. And as a matter of fact, Regan’s deficit busting budget was actually reduced by a Democratic congress when he was president in the 80s.

UGA 1999

October 3rd, 2011
2:20 pm

Darwin….dare to compare spending while Obama has been in office?

The General Feeling

October 3rd, 2011
2:45 pm

Good work Kyle. Heads are exploding all over mid-town.

Lil' Barry the blowhard (but not as much a blowhard as lil' Barry bailout (revised downward, then upward, then in a circle)

October 3rd, 2011
3:22 pm

@uga 1999 and other konservative klowns – fighting fantasy with fantasy is all. Doesn’t do a lick of good in the real world, much like wingfields pointless pontificating that’s purely obfuscational

Plains peanut farmer

October 3rd, 2011
3:29 pm

I will apply all my diplomatic skill to bring the two camps into agreement, right after I finish negotiations to free our hostages in Iran. Rosalyn, can you bring me some cream for my hem…

HDB

October 3rd, 2011
4:00 pm

If we all realize that the wartime spending was kept OFF THE BUDGET, it would be evident that “spending and debt” would look lower under Dennis Hastert’s reign as Speaker. If the costs of Medicare/D and the wars were to be factored in, the chart would be quite different! Also note: the debt increased due to the REPUBLICAN Secretary of the TREASURY, Hank Paulson, needed $750B from the Government to SAVE the US Economy from imploding!!

MarkV

October 3rd, 2011
4:01 pm

Kyle’s charts are a simplistic, silly political argument. They do not show anything we did not know, they prove nothing. What else is new?

b6542

October 3rd, 2011
4:06 pm

I was amazed to find this article in the AJC. How about a comment from C. Tucker !

carlosgvv

October 3rd, 2011
4:08 pm

So, Kyle, I guess we should just not increase the debt and let the US go into full financial default. Even though this would cause a financial worldwide disaster, it would be the proper conservative thing to do. Right?

I Report (-: You Whine )-: Thee Magnificent!!! mmm, mmmm, mmmmm! Just sayin...

October 3rd, 2011
4:11 pm

When faced with reality, liberals sputter and whine, uh, like MarkV for instance.

Kyle Wingfield

October 3rd, 2011
4:19 pm

HDB: Debt is debt. There’s no “off the books” with debt.

MarkV

October 3rd, 2011
4:21 pm

When they have nothing rational to say, some people just show they have nothing to rational to say, like I Report (-: You Whine )-: Thee Magnificent!!! mmm, mmmm, mmmmm! Just sayin…for instance.