Washington Post’s Fact-Checker Gets It Wrong On The GOP’s Role In The ‘90s Budget Improvement

Our guest blogger is Michael Linden, director of Tax and Budget Policy at the Center for American Progress Action Fund.

Today the Washington Post’s fact-checker Glenn Kessler takes Sen. Barbara Boxer (D-CA) to task for saying, “I think we ought to go back to the people and the party that was the only party and the only people to balance the budget in 40 years. I hate to break it to my Republican friends, but that is the Democratic Party. We are the ones who did it.” Kessler gives her “three pinnocchios” and calls her statement an “alternate history.”

But Kessler is the one who is wrong.

One of Boxer’s main pieces of evidence was a piece I wrote in March using Congressional Budget Office reports to show that legislation passed by the Republican-controlled Congresses in 1995, 1996, and 1997 had literally nothing to do with the surplus in 1998. And those are the facts.

So why, then, does he give Boxer three pinnocchios? What is his evidence that the GOP had anything to do with the surpluses? Well, he says, they caused a “substantial shift in the policy debate” when they got to Washington.

Even if that claim is true — and Kessler offers no evidence that it is — did that “shift in the debate” lead to any actual legislation that had any impact on the bottom line? No, it did not. I’m at a loss to explain how a perceived “shift in the debate” that led to no real change in budgeting policy can be credited with improving the budget situation.

Kessler is also upset that Boxer doesn’t give enough credit to the booming economy for its role in helping to balance the budget. And it is true that the enormous economic growth in the early 1990s was crucial to achieving a balanced budget.

But that doesn’t invalidate the point that GOP-led legislation played no role. Quite the opposite. Even with the benefit of the boom, the budget would still have been in deficit had it not been for the Democratic-passed legislation. Republican-passed legislation still played no role at all.

There are several other points Kessler makes that are misleading. He says, for example, that Clinton’s budget in 1993 decreased the deficit only slightly from $290 billion in 1992 to $200 billion in 1998. But that’s the wrong comparison. The comparison should be to the projected deficit in 1998 before Clinton’s budget passed, not the deficit in 1992. It happens that, using the right comparison, Clinton’s budget reduced 1998’s deficit by at least $160 billion — more than 40 percent.

The conventional wisdom in Washington, then as now, is that the GOP forced Clinton into adopting fiscal responsibility. Kessler exemplifies this by using as evidence a Washington Post editorial from 1995 making that argument. The conventional wisdom happens to be wrong in this case. Boxer may not have given enough credit to the growing economy, but her basic claim that the GOP had nothing to do with the change from deficit in 1993 to surplus in 1998 is true.