After MSNBC host Joe Scarborough claimed in a Washington Post column that "President Trump's Republican Party will create more debt in one year than was generated in the first 200 years of America's existence,” the Tampa Bay Times checked to see if he was correct.
The finding? What Scarborough was, for the most part, true.
First, there are two common measures for debt. One, called public debt, tallies up the debt held by the public, while gross federal debt is a larger figure that combines publicly held debt plus debt held by the government itself, such as in the Social Security or Medicare trust funds. Both figures are considered legitimate, and since Scarborough didn't specify which one she was referring to, we'll run the numbers for both categories of debt.
Because debt is cumulative (minus any intervening surpluses), the debt level at the end of a given time period is the cumulative debt up to that point -- you don't have to add the yearly figures for debt to get the figure Scarborough is referencing.
Next up, what should be considered the first 200 years of America’s existence? The Times opted for the country’s Declaration of Independence — 1776 — and the bicentennial year — 1976.
At the end of 1976, the public debt was $477.4 billion, and the gross federal debt was just under $629 billion.
So how does that compare to Trump's record?
The amount of public debt added in 2017 -- a year when Trump was president for all but 20 days and when the Republicans were in control of Congress -- was $497.8 billion, while the amount of gross federal debt added was $666.3 billion.
Whichever variety of debt you use, the amount of debt added under Republican control in 2017 was greater than the accumulated debt by the end of 1976, making Scarborough's statement correct. (Economists do not typically adjust debt figures for inflation; the figures cited above are nominal dollars.)
Further, the nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office that the debt will increase by even greater numbers over the next few years — more than $1 trillion each year in 2018, 2019 and 2020.
So why did the Tampa Bay Times rate Scarborough’s statement as “mostly true”?
First, Scarborough lays the blame entirely at the Republicans' feet. However, decisions made by Democrats or by both parties long before Trump's tenure have shaped how much was added to the debt in 2017.
Net interest on the debt accounted for 6.6 percent of federal spending in 2017, and mandatory spending -- outlays that are essentially on autopilot, including Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid -- accounted for an additional 63.3 percent of federal spending. So the broad outlines of today's spending picture were not solely set by today's Republican congressional majorities and Republican president.
Second, the inevitable grind of inflation and population growth puts an upward pressure on the scale of the debt. Unless and until the United States reverses course and starts paying down the debt, every new president will preside over ever-larger amounts of debt.