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WLRN has partnered with PolitiFact to fact-check Florida politicians. The Pulitzer Prize-winning team seeks to present the true facts, unaffected by agenda or biases.

PolitiFact FL: DeSantis’ statement on federal government growth is exaggerated

A man and a woman walk together and wave.
Reba Saldanha
Republican presidential candidate and Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis and his wife Casey, walk in the July 4th parade, Tuesday, July 4, 2023, in Merrimack, N.H.

Florida governor and Republican presidential candidate Ron DeSantis dropped a striking statistic during a recent interview with Fox News’ Maria Bartiromo.

"The agencies and government have grown 50% since 2019," DeSantis told Bartiromo July 9 on her "Sunday Morning Futures" show. "Is there any American that’s somehow better off as a result of that?"

Looked at one way — by the projected growth in federal spending from 2019 to 2024 — DeSantis has a point.

However, such spending doesn’t reflect growth in the number or size of "agencies" or overall government infrastructure. Most of the growth in spending has flowed directly to Americans as entitlements and other direct payments.

Government spending since 2019

DeSantis’ campaign told PolitiFact his "Sunday Morning Futures" statement was based on federal spending. DeSantis was comparing the level of spending in 2019 to the projected level in fiscal year 2024, the campaign said.

Such a comparison is inherently complicated and imprecise for three reasons:

  • Spending levels for 2024 are estimates. 
  • Spending levels have been somewhat in flux because of the June passage of the Fiscal Responsibility Act of 2023. The act lifted the debt ceiling, the limit on how much debt the federal government can take on, and capped certain types of spending. 
  • Third, there are different ways to measure spending. One way is to look at budget authority — how much the government is authorized to spend in a given category. Another is to view outlays, which measures the money actually spent.

Still, by the commonly used outlays measure, DeSantis’ claim is close.
Using figures from the White House’s Office of Management and Budget, federal spending was estimated to jump by 55% between 2019 and 2024. These figures were calculated before the Fiscal Responsibility Act passed June 3, so they’re outdated.

More recent estimates by the Congressional Budget Office show an increase of about 43%.

Budget experts urged caution when looking at spending growth alone.

First, this growth in government spending didn’t happen in a vacuum.

Chris Towner, policy director for the Committee for a Responsible Federal Budget, a fiscally hawkish group, said a spike in inflation since 2019 is partly to blame for the rise in spending. The nation’s population has also grown during that period.

Towner said some of the growth has stemmed from a cohort of older Americans drawing more from Social Security and Medicare, plus the coronavirus relief bills, the bipartisan infrastructure law, a boost in veterans benefits, general increases to regular appropriations and bills to assist Ukraine in its conflict with Russia.

To adjust for these factors, experts recommend comparing federal spending with the nation’s gross domestic product; a growing economy can support higher federal spending. Adjusted for GDP, the rise in spending from 2019 and 2024 was more modest — 11%. (GDP is the combined value of goods and services produced in a country in a given period.)

A big jump in both raw spending and spending as a share of GDP came in 2020 under President Donald Trump — one of DeSantis’ rivals in the Republican presidential primary — because of relief efforts related to the coronavirus pandemic. By now, the pandemic spending’s impact has passed, and spending has settled at a lower level than during its pandemic peak.

Another way to measure the size of government: Employment

DeSantis’ reference to "agencies" would seem to suggest that a different metric could be used to gauge the growth of government: federal employment.

Bureau of Labor Statistics data shows that full-time federal government employment — including the military and the U.S. Postal Service — has increased by 2.7% from 2019 to mid-2023, a rate far below the growth in spending. (We’re ignoring a brief spike in 2020 from the hiring of extra staff for the once-a-decade census.)

A broader measurement of federal employment, which includes contract and grant-funded workers, shows a similarly small increase. The data, calculated by New York University’s Paul Light, shows a federal employment increase of 2.5% between 2020 and 2022.

"Is there any American that’s somehow better off as a result of that?"

One big factor that DeSantis’ analysis misses is the nature of all this additional federal spending.

Much of the growth in federal outlays has come from rising entitlement spending, a category that includes Social Security, Medicare, Medicaid and veterans’ benefits. In 2022, a little more than two-thirds of federal outlays went toward entitlements. An additional 7% went for interest.

The remainder is the best approximation of the "size" of government, because much of it (though not all of it) goes toward paying the federal workforce, constructing and maintaining federal infrastructure and other expenses that people tend to think of as "government."

This share of federal spending, known as discretionary spending, accounted for a bit more than one-quarter of all federal spending. Of this, 11% went for defense and the remaining 14% went for areas other than defense.

So, when DeSantis asks, "Is there any American that’s somehow better off as a result of" increased federal spending, the answer could be yes — anyone who received Social Security payments, insurance coverage from Medicare or Medicaid, or veterans’ benefits.

"(DeSantis) would be on much sounder footing to say government spending rather than agencies and government, since so much of that spending was not to grow the government footprint, but to actually respond to the bipartisan concerns about the pandemic and concomitant economic impacts," said Steve Ellis, president of Taxpayers for Common Sense, a Washington, D.C., group that tracks the federal budget.

Our ruling

DeSantis said, "The agencies and government have grown 50% since 2019."

He has a point that federal spending is on track to grow by 43% to 55% over 2019 levels by 2024, depending on which measure you use. When adjusted for gross domestic product, the increase is smaller, about 11%.

However, spending is an imperfect way to measure the size of "agencies and government."

Federal employment is up about 2%. And about two-thirds of federal spending goes either directly to Americans as cash payments or as payments for their health care, meaning that a large chunk of the increase in spending goes directly toward Americans, rather than the bureaucracy.

We rate the statement Half True.

Our Sources

Louis Jacobson has been with PolitiFact since 2009, currently as chief correspondent.
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