Fact checking the GOP debate in Iowa

at 06:00 AM ET, 08/12/2011


(Charlie Neibergall/AP)

That was some collection of facts and statistics during the GOP debate in Iowa on Thursday night that aired on Fox News.

We’re going to take an instant stab at nine of the statements, and then perhaps come back next week with a more extended look at other assertions. We also will have a chat Friday morning at 11 a.m. in which we will take your questions on the debate, the debt ceiling or any other issues you want to raise.

Please join us for the discussion. We plan to host a chat at least every week, though the time will vary.

“Back in the days of John F. Kennedy, the federal government took up, along with the state and local governments, 27 percent of the economy. Today, government consumes 37 percent of the economy. We’re inches away from no longer having a free economy.”

— Former Massachusetts governor Mitt Romney

Romney gets his statistics essentially right, according to White House historical records (see table 15.5), but the numbers are missing context. In 1961, there was no Medicare and Social Security only made up about 2 percent of the overall economy (the Gross Domestic Product.) Excluding other payments to individuals and national defense, overall federal spending was also just 2 percent of the economy. (State and local spending was nearly 9 percent of the economy.)

Fast forward to today. Social Security and Medicare are more than 8 percent of the economy. National defense has fallen in half, to 5 percent of the economy. The other functions of the federal government (i.e., excluding payments to individuals and defense) has actually fallen to just 1.6 percent of GDP. So the federal government in many ways is actually smaller.

Romney’s statement that the United States is “inches away” from not having a free economy is rhetorical nonsense. There are many metrics one could use to disprove it, but here’s one: the conservative Heritage Foundation Index of Economic Freedom. The United States ranks ninth out of 179 countries. There’s still a long way to go before the nation catches up with North Korea.

“In the last two months, I was leading on the issue of not increasing the debt ceiling.”

— Rep. Michele Bachmann (Minn.)

Bachmann does not play a leadership role in Congress and had virtually no involvement in the debt ceiling discussions, except rhetorically.

“The country’s bankrupt and nobody wanted to admit it. And when you’re bankrupt, you can’t keep spending.”

— Rep. Ron Paul (Texas)

Under no definition is the United States “bankrupt.” The nation has a large debt as a percentage of its economy, and that is an issue of concern. But it is able to pay its debts and its bonds are still regarded as the gold standard in the financial markets — which is why investors have flocked to buy U.S. Treasuries during this period of market turmoil.

“Where’s Barack Obama on these issues? You can’t find his plans on some of the pressing financial issues of our country. For example, where is Barack Obama’s plan on Social Security reform, Medicare reform, Medicaid reform? In fact, I’ll offer a prize tonight to anybody in this auditorium or anyone watching on television. If you can find Barack Obama’s specific plan on any of those items, I will come to your house and cook you dinner.”

— Former Minnesota governor Tim Pawlenty

Funny pledge, but factually incorrect. Obama’s health-care law was filled with Medicare reforms, designed to rein in costs. (Here is a summary.) One can disagree whether those reforms will be effective, but the law certainly is a plan. And during talks with congressional leaders on the debt limit, Obama offered to put Social Security reforms on the table.

Governor, when can we expect dinner?

“It’s an undisputable fact that in Congress, her record of accomplishment and results is nonexistent.”

— Pawlenty, speaking about Bachmann

As only a three-term member of Congress, until recently in the minority, Bachmann has few legislative achievements to her credit. So Pawlenty’s right, but that is to be expected given how new she is to Congress. President Obama, with only four years in the Senate, has a similar slim record.

As John F. Kennedy once observed, the only qualification for becoming president is to win. He also had a meager record of accomplishment in the Senate.

“The policies that the governor advocated for were cap-and-trade. . . . I was very vocal against that tax, and I fought against that tax” imposed by Pawlenty on cigarettes

— Bachmann, speaking about Pawlenty

Without getting too deep in the weeds about ancient legislative quarrels in the Minnesota legislature, Bachmann is correct that Pawlenty in 2007 supported efforts to curb greenhouse emissions with some sort of cap-and-trade plan. He has since backed away from that stance. Pawlenty noted that she voted for what he called a 75-cent-a-pack “health impact fee”— she said it was because of an unrelated abortion provision attached to the bill — but she very quickly proposed a bill to repeal the tax.

“And let me tell you what I talked about with respect to the stimulus. I talked about the need for more tax cuts in the stimulus. We didn’t have enough of it.”

— Former Utah governor Jon Huntsman

Huntsman is sugar-coating his rhetoric on Obama’s stimulus bill. As the Washington Monthly documented in May, Huntsman actually focused on the need for more infrastructure spending.

“So you had maybe 25 percent infrastructure [in the stimulus], 75 percent all other categories — it should have been reversed to my mind, so that coming out of the stimulus phase, we actually could have maybe achieved a better, stronger, more 21st-century infrastructure in our country,” Huntsman said in 2009. “That is my one gripe.”

“Until recently, he [Obama] and [Secretary of State] Hillary Clinton suggested that [Syrian president] Bashar Assad was a reformer.”

— Pawlenty

Obama himself never called Assad a reformer. Clinton claimed that lawmakers of “both parties” had suggested he was a reformer, which was incorrect. (Only a few Democrats publicly suggested that.) But she did not say that was her personal opinion.

Pawlenty has an issue with Clinton’s conduct of foreign policy, which we have previously examined.

“The Congress gave Barack Obama a blank check for $2.4 trillion. What did the American people get in return? Twenty-one billion [dollars] in illusory cuts. . . . We just heard from Standard & Poor’s, when they dropped our credit rating. What they said is, we don’t have an ability to repay our debt.”

— Bachmann

Bachmann once again mischaracterizes what S&P said, an issue we had examined just this week. S&P never said the United States could not repay its debts — otherwise the country would be bankrupt — but it downgraded Treasury bonds because it felt the political environment in Washington was too toxic to make progress on a package to substantially reduce the deficit.

Bachmann’s reference to $21 billion in “illusory cuts” refers only to the impact on the deficit in the 2012 fiscal year. (See Table 3 of this Congresional Budet Office analysis.) But over 10 years, the specific deficit reduction would amount to $917 billion — and as much as $2.1 trillion if a deal to cut another $1.2 trillion via a special congressional committee is effective.

By the way, a blank check means there is no dollar amount. In any case, Congress has already committed to spend much of this money, under budgets passed in previous years. Lifting the debt ceiling merely means that the Treasury now has the authority to make good on bills that are coming due.

An earlier version of this post incorrectly said the Iowa debate took place on Friday night.

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

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