You’ve heard of lies, damned lies, and statistics? Well, here’s Exhibit A: a column at MarketWatch by Rex Nutting.
Nutting’s column, titled “Obama spending binge never happened,” has caused a lot of excitement among people who would like to believe it’s true. And the bottom-line numbers — which are as far as Nutting goes in his column — do show that total spending has risen more slowly between fiscal 2009 and fiscal 2013 than you might have otherwise believed. Annual federal spending growth during President Obama’s first term, Nutting’s numbers show, has been 1.4 percent. That would be slower than in any of the seven previous terms, dating to the beginning of the Reagan years. Going out of his way to be even-handed, Nutting even graciously attributes Obama’s “stimulus” spending in FY09 to Obama rather than to George W. Bush, under whom that fiscal year began.
What a guy!
But what Nutting’s surface-level “analysis” fails to acknowledge — aside from the fact that he’s giving Obama full credit for a level of spending that won’t even begin for four more months, making it a completely unknowable quantity — is the vast amount of spending that was supposed to be temporary but instead has been baked into Uncle Sam’s cake. Accounting for the temporary-turned-permanent gives us a truer depiction of the Obama’s (sorry to say it!) spending binge.
Let’s start with the appropriations bills Obama signed for FY09 other than the stimulus. The two major ones were the $105.9 billion supplemental defense bill and the $2.9 billion “cash for clunkers” bill. So that’s $108.8 billion that ought to be put on Obama’s ledger rather than Bush’s.
Now let’s take a deeper look at the stimulus spending Nutting attributes to Obama in FY09. Nutting puts it at $140 billion. The next year’s budget, which included the FY09 spending, instead pegged it at $202 billion with an estimated $30 billion in FY13; subsequent budgets have not broken out the spending specific to the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act (probably because the ARRA has been so amazingly popular and successful). Nutting doesn’t tell us where he gets that $140 billion figure, and so, to avoid mixing numbers, I’m going to stick with the figures from the FY10 budget. That’s $172 billion in “temporary” spending that, under The Most Fiscally Responsible President Evah, should have disappeared.
That’s not all. Spending in FY09 also included $151 billion for the bank bailout, or TARP, and the FY13 budget puts the figure at $12 billion. That’s another net $139 billion in “temporary” spending that should have gone away. Add that to the $172 billion from the stimulus, and we’re talking about $311 billion.
Now, to be truly fair to Obama, let’s make comparisons without including the costs of Medicare, Social Security and net interest. These are big-ticket items that are growing quickly on automatic pilot, and they couldn’t have been changed without a long national debate. So, here’s what we have:
FY09 spending: $3,518 billion
Less Medicare, Social Security and net interest: $2,218 billion
Less “temporary” TARP and stimulus spending: $1,907 billion
Less Obama’s supplemental spending for defense, clunkers: $1,798 billion
The equivalent figure in Obama’s FY13 budget is $2,418 billion, which would represent an annualized growth rate of 7.7 percent. That’s five and a half times faster than the rate with which Nutting credited Obama. Once we adjust Bush’s record to account for the $108.8 billion in Obama’s supplemental FY09 spending outlined above, it places his spending as the second-fastest out of the last eight presidential terms rather than the slowest, as Nutting claimed. (The rankings are the same even if we adjust for inflation.)
Where did Obama want to stick this extra money? In International Affairs ($22 billion, or 59 percent, higher than FY09), Transportation ($30 billion, or 36 percent), Education ($42.2 billion, or 53 percent), Health (not counting Medicare, $51.5 billion, or 15 percent), Energy ($9.2 billion, or 193 percent), to name a few of the largest examples.
However, Nutting did not use Obama’s FY13 budget as a comparison. Perhaps that’s fair, given that the president’s budget was defeated 99-0 in the Senate recently. In any case, Nutting instead used the Congressional Budget Office’s projected baseline, and this really is the coup de grace for his argument.
The CBO’s projected baseline gives us an equivalent FY13 figure of $1,968 billion, which in turn gives us an annualized growth rate of 2.3 percent, which is actually OK by recent historical standards. But what is the CBO’s projected baseline? It is the agency’s estimate of what revenues and spending will be if current law is kept in place. That is, it tells us what happens if the president and Congress do nothing. For this lack of action, Nutting wants to give Obama credit.
But wait, there’s more! Even if we use the CBO projections, it is worth noting the enormous difference between Obama’s first two years, when Democrats had huge majorities in Congress, and his third and fourth years, during which Republicans have controlled the House. The annualized growth rate in the first two years was 7.7 percent; since then it’s minus-2.9 percent.
So, to conclude:
We are supposed to ignore Obama’s budget proposal, which showed his spending rising faster than what’s typical for the past 30 years, and instead give him credit for a) not going beyond the baked-in spending he set in motion early in his term and b) the gridlock that came to Washington after Republicans took over the House?
You will not find conservatives lauding the George W. Bush years as a model of fiscal restraint, because they weren’t. But it is just as laughable for Nutting and his fellow travelers to try to make such a claim for Obama.
– By Kyle Wingfield