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By Charles Pope June 22, 2011

Is Kurt Schrader at fault for maxing out government 'credit card'?

Rep. Kurt Schrader is neither drunken (as far as we know)  nor is he a sailor.

But that’s not the portrait the National Republican Congressional Committee paints of Schrader, the second-term Democrat from Oregon who is likely to face another tough campaign in 2012.

The NRCC is in the business of electing Republicans and defeating people like Schrader. So it’s not surprising that on May 18 the organization sent out a news release accusing Schrader of spending federal tax dollars like a drunken sailor and blaming him for pushing government debt to the $14.3 trillion limit.

"Kurt Schrader and his fellow Democrats went on a spending spree and now their credit card is maxed out," the press release said.

That’s a pretty exact, and if true, damning statement at a time when most voters are highly worried about the nation’s debt and not enamored with any politician who’s prone to go on "spending sprees.’’

So let’s take a look to determine if it stands up.

Our government gets some of the cash it needs by borrowing from foreign governments and other investors. As happens when your bills come due and your current income cannot keep up, the United States now needs to borrow even more. To get the money, Congress first must approve a debt limit higher than the current one of $14.294 trillion.

This is a lot like living on a credit card and asking the bank for a higher limit, an analogy that Republicans happen to like. In an attack used in some variation against Schrader and 58 other House Democrats, the NRCC also claimed that Schrader and his fellow Democrats "went on a spending spree and now their credit card is maxed out."

But is it the fault of Schrader and House Democrats that the federal credit card has been maxed out?

Not exactly.

You might remember the tax cuts championed by congressional Republicans and former President George W. Bush, tax cuts that were extended in December for two years under Democratic President Barack Obama. While some economists say these were needed to give the economy a kick, they also meant less money came in from tax revenue.

Before the most recent extension, the Congressional Research Service said that the Bush tax cuts, with a 10-year price tag of $1 trillion, played a substantial role in the nation’s annual deficits. Some will argue that tax cuts can actually pay for themselves by stimulating economic growth, but PolitiFact has previously found that the Congressional Budget Office, the Treasury Department, the Joint Committee on Taxation and the White House’s Council of Economic Advisers say that tax cuts lead to revenues that are lower than they otherwise would have been – even if they spur some economic growth.

Last year, the Congressional Budget Office said that extending all of them permanently, as many in the GOP would like, would cost $3.3 trillion over 10 years and increase deficits.

Then there’s the recent economic downturn, which also played a role. And the nation is still engaged in wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, with billions of dollars flowing out to pay for them. These began during the Bush years and continue under Obama. Schrader wasn’t in Congress when the war started. He has voted both for and against funding since he was elected.

Despite the intensity of the recent debate, altering the debt ceiling - almost always up - has been routine practice in Washington for generations. The ceiling reflects the real world. With ongoing wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, a deep recession and less revenue as a result of tax cuts enacted under former President George W. Bush, the gap between income and expenses has widened.

"Since March 1962, Congress has enacted 74 separate measures that have altered the limit on federal debt," the Congressional Research Service said in a May report. The CRS is Congress’ non-partisan and independent analytical organization.

"Most of these changes in the debt limit were, measured in percentage terms, small in comparison to changes adopted in wartime or during the Great Depression. Some recent increases in the debt limit, however, were large in dollar terms. For instance, in May 2003, the debt limit increased by $984 billion and in February 2010 the debt limit was increased by $1.9 trillion," the CRS report said.

The case is even more difficult to make against Schrader since he is actively involved with the fiscally conservative Blue Dog Democrats, whose sole purpose in life is to restrain federal spending.

In fact, Schrader chaired the group’s Fiscal Responsibility Task Force, which aims to restrain federal spending and reduce debt. In that capacity, Schrader helped write a budget proposal earlier this year that called for $100 billion less spending over the next 10 years.

Schrader has repeatedly called for President Obama to use recommendations offered by the president’s National Commission on Fiscal Responsibility and Reform. He also voted against extending the tax cuts enacted by former-President Bush and he has returned $180,000 in unused funds from his own congressional account.

To say that Schrader ran up the credit card is a pithy political slogan, but it ignores all the other spending and borrowing that factored into the debt. Were the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan and the tax cuts the chief culprits? Democrats say yes. Conservatives disagree, saying that amounts to cherry picking and ignores all other spending.  

Before ruling, we’re compelled to point out that since 2001, Congress has voted to raise the debt ceiling ten times, according to the Congressional Research Service. Seven of those hikes were under Bush, three under Obama.

Schrader, like most Democrats, has selectively voted to boost spending. But he’s also offered proposals calling for deep and specific cuts. The NRCC attack ignores both the facts and the basic history of spending decisions that predate Schrader’s arrival in Congress but which contribute to the fiscal reality that lawmakers and all Americans must face. Taken together, those oversights are substantial and the reason we rate this claim: False.

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Return to OregonLive to comment on this statement and ruling.

Our Sources

National Republican Congressional Committee, e-mail, "After Democrats Max Out the Credit Card, Schrader Content to Ask for More," May 18, 2011

Center on Budget and Policy Priorities,  "Economic downturn and Bush policies continue to drive large projected deficits," Kathy Ruffing and James R. Horney, May 10, 2011

Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, "What’s driving projected debt?" May 20, 2011

The Oregonian, "Kurt Schrader and Blue Dog Democrats offer middle ground to prevent government shutdown,"March 30, Charles Pope

Email exchange, James Atkin, Office of Rep. Kurt Schrader, June 14

Heritage Foundation, "Liberal think tank fails statistics," Brian Riedl, May 13, 2011

Congressional Research Service, "The Debt Limit: History and Recent Increases," May 16, 2011

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Is Kurt Schrader at fault for maxing out government 'credit card'?

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