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Fact Checking Mitt Romney’s fiscal policy speech

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Haraz N. Ghanbari/Associated Press

We will leave to others the economic analysis of Romney’s big speech on fiscal policy last Friday. How accurate were some of his facts?

“It took 43 presidents over 200 years to accumulate $6.3 trillion in debt. President Obama is on track to do that in just one term. His fundamental error is that he believes government creates jobs. He’s wrong. He puts his faith in government. I put my faith in people.”

This fact is technically correct but a bit misleading with the emphasis on 43 presidents and 200 years. The debt doubled under Obama’s predecessor, so Romney could have just as easily said that it took 42 presidents more than 200 years to accumulate $3.3 trillion in debt but George W. Bush about doubled it. Spending certainly accounted for a large part of the increase in the debt, but so did the dramatic decrease in tax revenue as a result of the Great Recession.

“Over the last 33 months, President Obama has grown federal spending to 24 percent of our total economy, 24 percent of the GDP. As president, I pledge to reduce spending to 20 percent of the GDP by the end of my first term.”

This pledge by Romney is more realistic than plans from other Republicans that call for spending to be as low as 18 percent of gross domestic product. During Ronald Reagan’s years, however, it got as high as 23 percent of GDP. (See the White House historical budget tables, Table 1.3.) This is in part because the ratio of spending to the GDP can be greatly affected if the GDP slows or even declines during a recession.

“To reach that 20 percent goal, we’re going to need to find by 2016 about $500 billion a year in annual savings.”

At this point in the speech, Romney gave some specific examples of how he would try to reach these savings, although the effort is made harder because he hopes to add back $90 billion in defense spending cuts that Obama has scheduled. Otherwise, he would have needed to find only about $400 billion in savings.

As it is, Romney identifies only about $300 billion in possible cuts, although a spokesman says that “nowhere do we say this is Mitt’s balanced budget plan.” One of Romney’s line items is $95 billion in savings from a repeal of Obama’s health-care law, which the Congressional Budget Office said would reduce outlays by $95 billion (see Table 2) in 2016.

Still, our colleagues at PolitiFact flatly labeled this claim false because Romney did not factor in the loss of tax revenue if the law were repealed.

On this one, we differ with PolitiFact, because it seems clear that Romney is discussing only the spending side of the equation here. In theory, he would have to make up that tax revenue if he did not want the deficit to increase, but that’s a different issue. Spending, as Romney said, would decrease $95 billion, or 20 percent of his $500 billion goal.

In any case, over a 10-year period, the costs of and revenue from the health-care law essentially balance out, especially because the administration recently dropped the revenue-raising CLASS Act, which would have provided for long-term care.

It’s the other yet-to-be-named cuts, worth about $200 billion, that are more dubious. That type of magic asterisk could mean higher deficits.

“I was speaking with former secretary of the Navy John Lehman. He told me that during the Second World War, we commissioned about 1,000 ships a year. And the Navy purchasing department that year, which they called at the time the Bureau of Ships, had 1,000 employees. By the time John Lehman was secretary of the Navy under Ronald Reagan, he said we commissioned about 17 ships a year, and Navy purchasing had grown to 4,000 people. Today, we’ll commission nine ships a year. And purchasing? It’s grown to 24,000 people. A business like that would be out of business. We’ve got to cut the size of the federal workforce.”

This old saw! We had previously awarded Romney two Pinocchios for telling this tale when we first exposed it as largely fiction. But since then, the current Navy secretary wrote Lehman to say that his claim is incorrect, so this may be worth three or four Pinocchios if Romney says it again.

“Since President Obama took office, the number of federal workers that make over $150,000 a year has more than doubled.”

This fact appears to come from a USA Today article, but it is a bit misleading. Much of the increase in worker pay is the result of an increase imposed by the Democratic-controlled Congress — over the objections of President George W. Bush — that took effect the month Obama entered the White House. So, according to Office of Personnel Management records, the number of federal workers making more than $150,000 went from 39,434 in September 2008 to 65,992 in June 2009 (those are the closest dates to January that are available). It hardly seems fair to blame Obama for that increase.

As of this past June, the number of federal workers making above $150,000 was 86,457, or an increase of 31 percent over two years. Indeed, as president, Obama at first limited the annual pay increase in 2010 and then froze pay in 2011. (Note: Our colleague Ed O’Keefe examines another claim by Romney about federal pay over at the Federal Eye blog.)

“I’m looking forward to finding savings by combining certain government agencies and departments. For example, it makes very little sense that trade policies and programs are administered by so many offices in so many departments. Today trade matters are housed in the Office of the U.S. Trade Representative, the Department of Commerce, the International Trade Commission, the International Trade Administration, the Department of Homeland Security and the Department of Treasury. And by the way, guess who gathers all our trade data: None of the above. It’s the Census Bureau. Look, too many chefs not only spoil the broth, they make it inedible and prohibitively expensive. We’ve got to combine federal agencies.”

Mrs. Fact Checker once worked on trade issues for one of those departments (Commerce) and would agree that it makes little sense that so many federal agencies have a hand in trade policy. But good luck trying to change things — every one of those departments has a congressional committee behind it that insists on keeping its turf as big as possible. This is one reason why Congress almost never is able to agree on dismantling a federal agency.

Moreover, in the case of trade, one reason why the U.S. trade representative’s office works so effectively is because it is lean and mean. If it were saddled with all of the offices now scattered across the government, it might become more bureaucratic and less effective.

“And finally, as with Social Security, the eligibility age should slowly increase to keep pace with increases in longevity.”

Note that Romney did not say he would privatize Social Security, despite repeated ads and comments by Democrats that he has a plan to do so. Some Democrats have gotten angry at the Fact Checker for noting that Romney, in his recent book, announced that he no longer favors private accounts carved out of Social Security but instead prefers accounts that are added to it, much like 401(k) accounts. We find it interesting that in this speech, he did not even mention that idea but instead endorsed a rather standard proposal to improve Social Security’s long-term financing.

Although GOP rival Herman Cain still favors private accounts in Social Security, it’s pretty clear that the idea has little traction in Washington. Bush got nowhere with the big push to add private accounts to Social Security, even when Republicans controlled Congress.

The Pinocchio Test

We are still checking out a few other assertions, but Romney generally appeared careful not to stretch the truth too much, or at least could point to data that backed up his claims. On balance, we’d say this was between one and two Pinocchios, but probably closer to one.

One Pinocchio

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