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Posted at 12:38 PM ET, 01/26/2011

Fact Checking Ryan and Bachmann

By Glenn Kessler

Today, we will fact-check the dueling State of the Union responses by Rep. Paul Ryan (R-Wis.) and Rep. Michele Bachmann (R-Minn.) As with Tuesday's live fact check of the State of the Union, we are not awarding Pinocchios, just making observations and clarifications about key statements.

"It's no coincidence that trust in government is at an all-time low now that the size of government is at an all-time high."
--Rep. Paul Ryan

This sentence is largely comprised of two facts, and suggests a causal connection between the two. In both cases, it is a stretch. Let's deconstruct them.

There are many ways to measure size of government, but the most widely accepted is spending measured as a percentage of overall size of a nation's economy (gross domestic product, or GDP.) In a recession, this number is bound to go up because the size of the economy is shrinking while government spending goes up because of increased outlays for unemployment insurance and federal stimulus efforts. According to the statistics maintained by the White House budget office, the high point was reached during World War II, when outlays as a percentage of the overall economy reached 43.6 percent in 1943 and 1944. By contrast, in 2010, the level was estimated to reach 25.4 percent, and then decline to under 23 percent by 2013.

The size of the federal government relative to the economy topped 23 percent twice during the presidency of Ronald Reagan--whose famously wanted to shrink the government--and reached its low point in recent decades under Bill Clinton, when it hit 18.2 percent in 2000. Essentially Ryan is wrong when he says the size of government is at an all-time high.

Ryan's spokesman did not respond to a request for where the congressman got his claim, but to be fair he did refer to "government," suggesting he might have included state and local governments. The White House stats only go back to 1948, but as of 2009, the total percentage of all government spending stood at 36.1 percent, a post-war high. But given that the Congress and the White House can really only address federal spending, that does not seem like a relevant statistic. (If you have further interest in this subject, the Congressional Research Service recently did a fascinating look at the various ways to measure size of government.)

The other statistic--all-time low trust in government--comes from a Pew Research study, according to Ryan's spokesman. The study indeed says "just 22 percent say they can trust the government in Washington almost always or most of the time, among the lowest measures in half a century." But the study goes on to note the public is unhappy with other major institutions as well--Congress (24 percent), large corporations (25 percent), banks (22 percent), national news media (31 percent--ouch!), labor unions (32 percent) and the entertainment industry (33 percent). And, ironically enough, the Obama administration was trusted by 45 percent, which seems to undercut Ryan's point entirely.

--Glenn Kessler

Ryan's spokesman said Ryan got his "all-time high" stat from the White House budget office, the source of the same figures I cited above. He has not responded to request for an explanation of why Ryan says it is an all-time high when the statistics show otherwise.

"The president's strategy for recovery was to spend a trillion dollars on a failed stimulus program fueled by borrowed money. The White House promised us that all the spending would keep unemployment under 8 percent. Well, not only did that plan fail to deliver, but within three months, the national jobless rate spiked to 9.4 percent.
--Rep. Michele Bachmann

"Unfortunately, instead of restoring the fundamentals of economic growth, he engaged in a stimulus spending spree that not only failed to deliver on its promise to create jobs, but also plunged us even deeper into debt."
--Rep. Paul Ryan

Note the use of the word "promise" here by both Bachmann and Ryan. It's a subtle way of saying the president broke some kind of pledge. But neither the president nor the White House ever promised that the stimulus plan would keep unemployment under eight percent. In fact, it would be foolish for any politician to make such claim. So where do Ryan and Bachmann get this line?

Both are referring to a projection issued on January 9, 2009 -- before Obama even took the oath of office--by two aides, Christina Romer, the nominee to head the Council of Economic Advisers, and Jared Bernstein, an incoming economic adviser to Vice President-elect Biden. The 14-page report thus was not an official government assessment, or even an analysis of an actual plan that had passed Congress. Instead, it was an attempt to assess the impact of a possible $775 billion stimulus package and how much of a difference it would make compared to doing nothing. The president-elect had articulated a goal of passing a plan that would "save or create 3 million jobs by the end of 2010."

Page 5 of the report included a chart that showed that unemployment would peak at 8 percent in 2009, compared to 9 percent in 2010 if nothing was done. But the report also contained numerous caveats and warnings because, after all, it was merely a projection. At the time, other economists had similar forecasts--Romer and Bernstein were in the mid-range--but the economy turned out to be in deeper trouble than most people thought. (Bachmann indicates this when she notes the unemployment rate had jumped to 9.4 percent three months after the bill was passed. There is no way any economic legislation would have much impact a few months after passage.)

In fact, a common criticism of the stimulus bill, at least from left-leaning economists, is that it turned out to be too timid for the economic tsunami that had struck the United States. Other economists argue that the stimulus was a success because helped avert even bigger economic meltdown. Romer, when she left the White House last year, said that the estimate of the impact of the stimulus bill was accurate but the eight-percent "prediction was so far off" because economic conditions were so much worse. "We, like virtually every other forecaster, failed to anticipate just how violent the recession would be in the absence of policy, and the degree to which the usual relationship between GDP [gross domestic product] and unemployment would break down," she said.

Economic projections by their nature are very uncertain. Grabbing a figure out of a two-year-old chart and calling it a presidential "promise" is going too far.

--Glenn Kessler

"Businesses and unions from around the country are asking the Obama administration for waivers from the mandates."
--Rep. Paul Ryan

"Obamacare mandates and penalties may even force many job creators to just stop offering health insurance altogether, unless, of course, yours is one of the more than 222 privileged companies or unions that's received a government waiver under Obamacare."
--Rep. Michele Bachmann

Both make the same point, though Bachmann's Tea Party-sponsored response seems much more sinister. Both suggest that "unions"--which after all are politically more supportive of Democrats--are getting special treatment. This is one of those highly technical issues that have been turned into a political talking point that leaves most audiences scratching their heads.

Neither lawmaker is specific, but both are alluding to a part of the law that has drawn complaints from companies, such as McDonald's in the fast-food industry, and other organizations that provide skimpy health insurance. This coverage is known by the jargon "mini-meds." And the question boils down to whether such bare-bones coverage is, in the short term, better than no coverage at all -- though that is not the way the two Republicans frame it.

Under the law, this kind of insurance is expected to disappear after 2014, when provisions will take effect that require most employers to offer their workers more complete coverage -- or else let those workers buy insurance through new insurance marketplaces, called exchanges. But for now, many of the mini-med plans fail to meet a requirement in the law that has just taken effect: that insurers devote at least $4 out of $5 they collect in premiums to their customers' well-being.

Companies, including McDonald's, threatened last year to stop offering any insurance. Rather than risk increasing the ranks of the uninsured, a regulation that the Health and Human Services department issued late last year allows companies and other organizations with that kind of insurance to ask to be exempted from that rule. That is what Reps. Bachman and Ryan referred to. The number Bachmann mentioned -- 222 -- amounts to the waivers that HHS said it had given out as of partway through the fall.

"The good news is that mini-meds will be eliminated in 2014, thanks to provisions that phase out insurance companies' use of annual limits between now and 2014," said a White House statement on the issue in December. "The bad news is that today mini-meds are often the only affordable option for many low-wage workers because retail and chain restaurants rarely offer their workers options beyond these plans."

In suggesting that some companies and unions were getting relief from the entire health care law, the two lawmakers overstated what is happening. And according to the HHS figures, unions received only about 20 percent of the 222 waivers the agency had given at that point. The rest went to companies.

--Glenn Kessler and Amy Goldstein

"The president could also turn back some of the 132 regulations put in place in the last two years, many of which will cost our economy $100 million or more."
--Rep. Michele Bachmann

This estimate comes from Susan E. Dudley, who was the top regulation official in the George W. Bush administration and who directs the George Washington University Regulatory Studies Center. By her count, Obama has issued 66 major regulations per year (major as being defined as having an impact of more than $100 million a year), compared to 47 per year under Bill Clinton and 48 per year under Bush.

But, as we have written before, not all of these regulations were Obama's doing; many were leftover business from the Bush administration and were court-ordered. And just looking at the costs is only half of the picture; many of these regulations have estimated benefits that significantly outweigh the costs.

--Glenn Kessler

Follow The Fact Checker on Twitter @GlennKesslerWP

By Glenn Kessler  | January 26, 2011; 12:38 PM ET
Categories:  Barack Obama, Economy, Issues  
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Next: Bachmann on slavery and the national debt


If that's the only substantive factual error you can find, I gotta take a look at that speech. Thanks for letting me know.

Posted by: sportbri | January 26, 2011 1:20 PM | Report abuse

Thank you for information, fact checking, like this; it helps considerably. Whatever our views on any given subject, it helps to have real facts, not simply ones that make a good "sound bite." Of course, it also makes our work as voters a lot more complicated...

Posted by: jujones1 | January 26, 2011 1:24 PM | Report abuse


try reading the article again first...
"Today, we will begin fact-checking the dueling State of the Union responses by Rep. Paul Ryan (R-Wis.) and Rep. Michele Bachmann (R-Minn.) We will post as we finish each analysis, so stay tuned."

And Teabagging morons wonder why people laugh at them. Sheesh.

Posted by: daweeni | January 26, 2011 1:48 PM | Report abuse

When you make a false or misleading statement then all you say is suspect

Posted by: groetzinger4404 | January 26, 2011 1:48 PM | Report abuse

talk about a stretch factchecker--your conclusion is a stretch also

Posted by: tonyjm | January 26, 2011 2:01 PM | Report abuse

sportbri wrote:

"If that's the only substantive factual error you can find, I gotta take a look at that speech. Thanks for letting me know."


Unfortunately, given that the entire speech follows from that flawed assumption, reading it doesn't seem like a particularly wise move. But, then ...

GOP spokesperson: Now, given that the moon is made of green cheese, it seems quite clear that we can cut the costs of cheese production by flying there and harvesting it ..." Man, what a bunch.

Posted by: chert | January 26, 2011 2:08 PM | Report abuse

Who do you think the Government was during the last decade?

It was the Republicans.
Republicans gave us TARP and 10% unemployment and the Great Recession.

So how can he honestly bring up "Trust in Government" without incriminating his own party's policies?

He can't.
But he will anyway.

Posted by: vigor | January 26, 2011 2:13 PM | Report abuse

Not to speak for Rep. Ryan, but it is hard to dispute that the scope and reach of the Federal government in the economy and our personal lives has never be higher than possibly the Second World War.

This is NOT a comment on if that is good or bad, I just think Ryan is correct on this point.

Posted by: bcarte1 | January 26, 2011 2:15 PM | Report abuse

Still waiting for your 'unbiased'factcheck on Obama.I wont hold my breath,but will offer just 'one'."if we pass this stimulus,unemployment wont go above 8%".And you libs wonder why your in the 19% category.God help us.

Posted by: votingrevolution1 | January 26, 2011 2:32 PM | Report abuse

Posted by: vigor
"Who do you think the Government was during the last decade?
It was the Republicans.
Republicans gave us TARP and 10% unemployment and the Great Recession.
So how can he honestly bring up "Trust in Government" without incriminating his own party's policies?
He can't.
But he will anyway."

Your lack of a grasp of the facts are priceless in showing everyone the mind (or lack thereof) of a Leftist.

During the Republican Congress:
- unemployment was 5% (statistically zero).
- The economy was growing at about 5% (quite repectable, though not booming).
- These statistics are despite a devastating attack on our main financial center, the Clinton recession, and fighting two wars simultaneously.

During the Democrat Congress:
- Federal workers pay increased 25% compared with private sector workers.
- TARP was passed.
- The debt climbed to about $14T.
- Large portions of the Banking, Automotive, and Healthcare, industries were taken over by the Govenment (unconstitutionally, BTW).
- Small businesses were saddled with regulations and expenses they cannot bear, without meanikngful relief from the government. These are called "unfunded mandates".

Though the Republicans did plenty wrong (but much of what was not fixed was due to the "Party of No" Tom Daschel & Co.), in a simple comparison the Republicans look like the paragon of fiscal restraint.

And you look like a fool.

Posted by: ScottinVA | January 26, 2011 2:33 PM | Report abuse

The size of the federal government can best be estimated by the number of full-time government employees. Ryan did not comment on the size of the government relative to the size of the overall economy; that's your WP spin. You put words in his mouth to support your own biased view of the world. The absolute size of the federal government is at a post-war high. I think the fact-checker needs a fact checker - fat chance of that happening in the partisan WP world.

Posted by: JM80 | January 26, 2011 2:38 PM | Report abuse

I'm assuming his claim about the size of government being at an all-time high is based simply on total spending. While disingenuous and intended solely to misconstrue facts to support an argument, this is a common tactic of plenty of people in a numbers argument. The raw amount continues to climb, even if the rate is much lower.

For what it's worth, Democrats, liberals, and Obama himself do this too. I'm not trying to start a political fight here other than to say that Rep. Ryan, like most politicians, decided to try to trick the populace for political gain. Same sh*t, different day. The new Congress is no different than the old.

Posted by: bfaiken | January 26, 2011 2:45 PM | Report abuse

No, JM 80, that's not the best way to calculate the size of the federal government. For one, I don't think Tea Partiers or the average American care nearly as much about the number of federal employees as they do about overall government spending, so it doesn't pass the sniff test anyway. But more importantly, as I mentioned above, raw number totals are misleading. Of course we have more federal employees now than we did 100 (or even 20) years ago. We also have more people in the United States than we did then. Even if you wanted to use this invalid measure as your calculation for size of government, you'd need to consider what percentage of the workforce works for the federal government, not the sheer numbers. As the population grows, the number of people we need working for the government grows too. I'm sure there were more federal employees under Reagan than there were 100 years before too.

Posted by: bfaiken | January 26, 2011 2:51 PM | Report abuse

It isn't soi much the number of government workers (although that number is too high), it's that their pay has risen astronamically since the Leftists took the Congress, and especially since they took the Executive.

SEIU payback.

Posted by: ScottinVA | January 26, 2011 2:57 PM | Report abuse

It hurts me to listen to Obama now that he has caved to the Republicans on most fiscal issues and has, thereby, legitimized the GW Bush economic disaster. I didn't want to listen to Ryan either, but I did catch a small part of his opening remarks where he "graciously" blamed our economic malaise on both political parties. Ryan was lying because the full blame of our deficits and national debt is on Reagan+Bush41+Bush43.
When Reagan took over in 1981 the national debt, accumulated over 200 year, was one trillion dollars and Carter's final budget deficit was a staggering $70 billion. Half way through Reagan's first budget year I joked that I thought his deficit would exceed $100 billion. All others laughed too. Reagan's first budget had a deficit of $140 billion (first time over $100 billion), double Carter's. And it got worse in succeeding years. By the end of Reagan+Bush41 our national debt was $4 trillion and the annual budget deficit was $200 or $300 billion.
When Clinton took over, the deficits remained high but turned around and Clinton's final two budgets had surpluses in the hundreds of billions of dollars. Yes, SURPLUSES. Ironically, one of the biggest financial concerns was the looming $10 trillion dollar budget surplus over ten years that was going to wipe out the national debt and the haven of safe government securities that support it.
Well, Bush43 took over in 2001 and within 6 months both the budget surplus and the national debt repayment disappeared into thin air. This all happened before 9/11. By the end of Bush43 the budget deficit exceeded $1 trillion (for the first time ever) and the national debt climbed to 12 or 13 trillion dollars. The debt's momentum continues today and is difficult to arrest. So Mr. Ryan was truly lying when he seemed willing to share the blame with the Democrats for our incredible dilemma. The blame rest totally on the Republicans, and especially Reagan and Bush41 and Bush43. No thanks, Mr. Ryan

Posted by: mzf123 | January 26, 2011 3:04 PM | Report abuse

@ScottinVA: What "Clinton recession" are you referring to? Correct me if I'm wrong, but I seem to remember that being the last time there was a surplus.

Secondly, the TARP program can also be attributed to President Bush, since the financial meltdown began under his watch with lax oversight of financial firms. It's incredibly misleading to attribute TARP solely to the current administration.

Also - where are you getting your statistics that show a federal pay raise of 25%?

Posted by: cnote_723 | January 26, 2011 3:13 PM | Report abuse

Mr. Ryan of course selects facts and uses them out of context to entice the intelligently challenged supporters on the right.
The same way he ignores the budget busting years of Reagan and "Bush the lesser".
Our defense spending, especially in targeted "program" as a boom for contractors and two currently unnecessary wars is raising the "size" of government based on spending to new heights.
Yesterday's article mentioned that the "response" speech could make the presenter look really stupid - and it did.

Posted by: pjohn2 | January 26, 2011 3:21 PM | Report abuse

@ votingrevolution1
Didn't they just talk about how the President DIDN'T "promise" that? Did you READ any of the above??

Posted by: monkeynavigated | January 26, 2011 3:39 PM | Report abuse

Yes, you are wrong.
The "surplus" was an accounting myth -- smoke and mirrors.
It was accomplished by robbing Social Security, et al., to pay down the public debt.

An excellent explanation is here:

The meltdown began under the Democrat Congress during President Bush's second term. It was precipitated by the burst of the housing bubble, which (in turn) was caused by lax oversight of Fannie and Freddie, and by the CRA and ACORN pushing banks to lend to people who couldn't afford houses (again, in the name of "fairness").

But I don't have to attribute TARP to the current administration; I can simply point to the the "Stimulus" which promoted the fleeting specter of "shovel ready jobs" (remember that little joke?), and the economy-crushing ObamaCare power grab, and the small business killer legislation.

No, TARP is laid fully in the lap of President Bush; I make no excuses for him on that score.

The figure on the wage gap came from memory. Upon further investigation, it was about 15% in 2008, but I recall hearing it has grown since then.

Posted by: ScottinVA | January 26, 2011 3:55 PM | Report abuse

Comparing the "budget busting years of Reagan and Bush" to the Current Congress and administration is like comparing a leaking faucet to a fire hose.

The Community Organizer in Chief makes the "drunken sailor" Republicans look like amateurs in wasting money.

But it's all part of the Cloward/Piven plan.

Posted by: ScottinVA | January 26, 2011 4:05 PM | Report abuse

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