BOB GARFIELD: From WNYC in New York, this is On the Media. I'm Bob Garfield.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: And I'm Brooke Gladstone. This week marked the opening salvo in a war over the budget likely to dominate the agenda of politicians and pundits for months, if not years.
MALE CORRESPONDENT: The leaders of a bipartisan commission appointed by the President offer a far-reaching and controversial plan.
FEMALE CORRESPONDENT: They go after fundamental tax reform which would raise revenues but also make the tax code much better, and they basically spread the cost of this plan across the entire budget.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: First off, this wasn't a report from the President’s Bipartisan Fiscal Panel. That needs 14 of its 18 members to agree, and they don't. This is just a draft opened up for debate by its co-chairs, Republican Alan Simpson and Democrat Erskine Bowles. So the headlines, like those in The New York Times and the Wall Street Journal, referring to “the panel,” are wrong. The panel ain't talking. Meanwhile, a Christian Science Monitor headline read, quote: “A bipartisan and reality-based way to cut taxes and reduce the deficit.” Really? If only. After all, according to Congressman Eric Cantor, our government has spent more money in the past two years than in the previous 200 combined. Actually, that’s not true at all. In fact, much of what politicians have said about our deficit and national debt is decidedly not reality-based. PolitiFact.com reporter and researcher Angie Drobnick Holan has found no shortage of half-truths and flat-out falsehoods. Angie, welcome to the show.
ANGIE DROBNICK HOLAN: Thank you for having me.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: So start with that statement by Eric Cantor, the Republican from Virginia. Here he is on The Daily Show in October.
ERIC CANTOR: What you’ve seen is a crowd that has taken advantage of a crisis back in late ’08, early ’09, and spent more money than this country has spent in the last 200 years combined in the two years since.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Just how false is that statement? Could you break it down?
ANGIE DROBNICK HOLAN: Well, we gave that statement our worst rating, which is “pants on fire.” [LAUGHS] We went to the historical tables that the government produces on debt and started adding up the years. We found the debt was quite significant for 2009 and 2010, about 7.2 trillion dollars. But then we started adding up the years before that, and when we added up 2008, 2007 and 2006 we had already exceeded the number of those past two years. [LAUGHS] So there is just no way that this statement was correct, and we gave it our worst rating of “pants on fire.”
BROOKE GLADSTONE: No resemblance to reality at all.
ANGIE DROBNICK HOLAN: No. The debt situation is significant, but it’s not that bad.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: [LAUGHS] Another Virginia congressman, Democrat Bobby Scott, said in a written statement, quote: “If all of the Bush era tax cuts expire on schedule, the budget will be close to being balanced in four years.” That sounds almost unbelievable, mm?
ANGIE DROBNICK HOLAN: We rated that one “false.” And the reason it’s false is if you let all of the Bush tax cuts expire you do reduce the deficit very significantly, but it’s still not balanced. You basically get it back to what’s considered more reasonable levels of debt.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: What about this four-year time span?
ANGIE DROBNICK HOLAN: No, it’s not correct. If you get rid of all the Bush era tax cuts, you still have deficits pretty much as far as the eye could see – now, again, much smaller but no, it still wouldn't be balanced.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: On election night, Wisconsin Republican Paul Ryan, who will be the chairman of the House Budget Committee, he made an interesting assertion.
PAUL RYAN: The spending bills that you've signed into law, the domestic discretionary spending has been increased by 84 percent.
ANGIE DROBNICK HOLAN: We rated this one “barely true.” What we found was that there was a spike between 2008 and 2010, the past two years. That spike in 2009 was because of the stimulus. Now, to get to that 84 percent increase, Paul Ryan counts the stimulus. But if you look at the 2010 discretionary spending it’s only about 24 percent over 2008. That’s why we rated it “barely true.”
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Mm-hmm.
ANGIE DROBNICK HOLAN: The stimulus was a one-time injection. It does not keep increasing the budget as the years go forward.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Let me ask you about one more. This one was written in an Op-Ed by former U.S. Senator George Allen. He claimed that the national debt is currently six trillion dollars more than when Obama was sworn into office.
ANGIE DROBNICK HOLAN: It’s actually only about three trillion right now. What’s interesting is that if Obama serves his whole term, then it would reach six trillion, but not right now. So we rated this one “false.”
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Is there one that I've left out that you consider to be a red-hot whopper?
ANGIE DROBNICK HOLAN: You know, one thing that we hear regularly are kind of statements that if you eliminated all the foreign aid you could fix the deficit. If you got rid of the waste, fraud and abuse you could fix the deficit. Well, the deficit is actually too significant for that sort of thing. Foreign aid is a relatively small percentage of the budget. Earmarks are less than two percent. To really get the budget under control, you need to look at three of the biggest spending categories, defense, Medicare and Social Security. The people who really study this and who are nonpartisan and aren't running for office say that we really need spending cuts and tax increases, that the scale is just too large to do it without both.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: You write about budget and deficit-related issues quite a lot. Is it, do you think, that the math and the numbers tend to trip people up, or are we talking willful deception in a number of cases?
ANGIE DROBNICK HOLAN: I think that the federal budget is very complicated and it’s easy to get things wrong.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: I can't believe you’re not willing to concede that some of these people are just lying.
ANGIE DROBNICK HOLAN: [LAUGHS] You know, “pants on fire” is our worst rating and it kind of speaks for itself.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Angie, thank you very much.
ANGIE DROBNICK HOLAN: Thanks.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Angie Drobnick Holan is a reporter and researcher for PolitiFact.