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By Ian K. Kullgren November 11, 2013

Has the national debt tripled since Rep. Greg Walden was elected to Congress?

U.S. Rep. Greg Walden may be a member of the House GOP leadership, but that hasn’t protected him from allegations that he’s too liberal for his conservative base -- or from drawing a primary challenger.

Late last month, Klamath County Chairman Dennis Linthicum announced he would try to oust Walden in the 2014 Republican primary.

Part of Linthicum’s motivation, he told The Oregonian, is that he sees Walden as a career politician who doesn’t stand up for conservative values.

On his campaign website, Linthicum offers the nation's ever-increasing public debt as one piece of evidence: "During Walden’s time as a representative (nearly 16 years) the National Debt has tripled."

We constantly hear about the nation’s trillions of dollars worth of debt, but has it really tripled in the time that Walden has been in office? We wanted to find out.

Looking up the public debt -- past and present -- is a fairly simple exercise. The U.S. Department of the Treasury Bureau of the Public Debt has a handy website that lets you look up the debt on just about any date.

Before we shower you with numbers, though, a quick note: As with almost anything we dig into, debt is a complex subject. When you talk about the total debt held by the U.S., there are two oft-cited measures. The first is the total outstanding public debt. That’s everything we owe to all of our debt-holders, no distinction made. Then there’s the debt held by the public. That’s our total debt minus intragovernmental debt or money owed by one part of the government to another part of the government. One economist we spoke to said the second one was generally "a little better measure."

To be safe, we checked the growth of both.

Walden began his service as a U.S. congressman in January 1999. The closest date we could find for which the Treasury had estimates of both sorts of debt was Sept. 30, 1999, so we went ahead and used that date and compared it with the most recent figures available, from Nov. 7.

Here’s what we found: Back in 1999, the total outstanding public debt was $5.6 trillion. These days, it’s a little north of $17 trillion. In other words, it’s tripled. The U.S. debt minus the intragovernmental loans was $3.6 trillion back in 1999 and is about $12.1 trillion these days. So, that’s more than tripled.

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Of course, we’re not economists so our next step was to call some experts.

We spoke with Tom Potiowsky, the chair of the Economics Department at Portland State University and the former chief economist for the state of Oregon, and Mark Thoma, an economics professor at the University of Oregon.

They both had little doubt that Linthicum’s claim is accurate, but they did provide us with some caveats. Thoma noted that comparing our debt now, on the heels of a recession, to debt from 1999 when the economy was in better shape, might be somewhat deceiving. We’ve had to spend far more on social programs, for instance. "To me, it’s misleading to use a recession as your end point," he said.

Potiowsky questioned whether it’s fair to hang the debt growth on Walden -- something we’ll get to later. And both Thoma and Potiowsky suggested we look at the U.S. debt relative to the nation’s gross domestic product. If the economy were expanding as quickly as the debt, that would be important to note.

We dug back into the numbers. In 1999 the debt-to-GDP ratio (if you use the entire debt) was 57 percent. These days, it’s 101 percent. So it’s just about doubled. Meanwhile, if you skim off the intragovernmental debt, the ratio in 1999 was 36 percent and is 72 percent today. Again, it’s doubled.

The takeaway, then, is that debt is growing and it’s growing faster than our GDP.

We called Linthicum to ask whether it’s fair to pin this all on Walden.

"I realize that Greg Walden is one member of the House, and there’s the Senate and there’s the president and his policies," he said. "I was just making what I saw as a statement of fact."

That may be so, but given that Linthicum uses the claim on a campaign website specifically to draw contrasts between him as a fiscal conservative and Walden as somebody who has let the debt skyrocket, it’s hard not to read it as an attack.

The blame, though, is largely misplaced. You’d also have to account for entitlement program growth and the impact of the recession.

His statement is accurate but he can’t pin the bulk of the growth on Walden, who is one of hundreds of lawmakers and three presidents to serve since 1999. We rate the statement Half True.

(Head back to OregonLive to comment on this article and let us know what you think about the ruling.)

Our Sources

Interview with Tom Potiowsky, the chair of the Economics Department at Portland State University, Nov. 5, 2013

Interview with Mark Thoma, economics professor at the University of Oregon, Nov. 5, 2013

Interview with Dennis Linthicum, Nov. 7, 2013

Dennis Linthicum, campaign website, Nov. 1, 2013

U.S. Department of the Treasury Bureau of the Public Debt, historical debt figures, Nov. 6, 2013

U.S. Department of Commerce, historical gross domestic product figures, Nov. 6, 2013

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Has the national debt tripled since Rep. Greg Walden was elected to Congress?

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