An admirable admission about a debt figure too high

at 06:00 AM ET, 04/05/2011


(CBS News)

“We've got to remember: In February, we added over $220 billion to our debt in just the 29 days in February.”

— Rep. Jason Chaffetz (R-Utah), April 4, 2011

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House Republicans will unveil their 2012 budget plan on Tuesday, and members of the Budget Committee, such as Chaffetz, have been hitting the airwaves to make the case for dramatic cuts in government spending.

His comment on MSNBC’s “The Daily Rundown” caught our ear because, first of all, we didn’t think it was a leap year. (We checked our calendar and, sure enough, there were only 28 days in February this year.)

But then his debt number also seemed rather high. Even if you assume the gross federal debt will increase by nearly $2 trillion this fiscal year, that’s still $167 billion a month on average. So what’s the real number?

The Treasury Department has a nifty calculator, The Daily History of the Debt, which can show you the actual public debt, to the penny, for any day you choose. You can get results for the debt held by the public or the total debt outstanding (including debt owed to Social Security, Medicare and other government programs). So we plugged in Feb. 1 and Feb. 28, subtracted the difference, and what did we find?

Either $83 billion (public debt) or $85 billion (gross debt). Maybe the other $135 billion was rung up on Feb. 29?

 Chaffetz’s staff pointed us to a Congressional Budget Office document showing that the budget deficit was $223 billion. They tried to argue that, over time, that deficit would be translated into $223 billion in additional debt, even though it did not show up in the monthly debt figures.

 That’s not really correct. What really counts is the annual deficit figure; monthly deficits are merely a snapshot. April’s deficit figure, for instance, is going to be much better because tax returns will be submitted and the government will get a gusher of money. (A family, for instance, could have a $1,000 deficit in February, a $1,000 deficit in March but get a $4,000 bonus in April, so over three months their assets would have increased, despite that deficit in February and March.)

 Of course, we remember the days when a $200 billion deficit in a year was cause for concern. By any measure, a $220 billion monthly deficit is pretty alarming. But, by the same token, saying the national debt had increased by that much is even more alarmist and incorrect.

 Chaffetz, by day’s end, sent us this statement: “The monthly DEFICIT was $223 Billion. I should have stated DEFICIT rather than DEBT.”

We applaud Chaffetz’s willingness to admit he made a mistake. The Fact Checker is not interested in playing a game of “gotcha” but hopes to help improve the tenor of the conversation in Washington and on the campaign trail. So we will withhold any Pinocchios at this time, and we will keep an eye on the congressman’s statements in the future. (We welcome readers to do the same and to send us anything you think is suspect.)

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    About the Blogger

    Glenn Kessler has covered foreign policy, economic policy, the White House, Congress, politics, airline safety and Wall Street.

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