Mitt Romney’s website recently claimed that “Since President Obama assumed office three years ago, federal spending has accelerated at a pace without precedent in recent history.”

Then MarketWatch’s Rex Nutting claimed that Romney was wrong.

Then someone asked me to read PolitiFact’s evaluation of Romney’s claim and Nutting’s article, titled “Viral Facebook post says Barack Obama has lowest spending record of any recent president.”

She presumably wanted me to respond. Here’s my response:

1. Nutting’s analysis does not necessarily contradict the Romney statement.

Nutting’s analysis looked only at the budgets signed by Obama, which took effect on October 1, 2009, and he threw in an extra $140B for reasons explained in the article. He is correct that the budgets signed by Obama have increased at a slower pace than those signed by other recent presidents.

But Romney’s statement– fairly or not– looked at federal spending since Obama took office on January 20, 2009. Much of that spending was authorized by Bush, whose final “budget year” lasted until September 30, 2009. So it may be technically correct to argue that “Since President Obama assumed office three years ago [1/20/09], federal spending has accelerated at a pace without precedent in recent history.”

In short, Romney and Nutting aren’t talking about the same thing. The objects of their arguments are offset by eight months. If an inordinate amount of the FY2009 spending (authorized by Bush) occurred after January 20, then Romney’s statement may also be correct.

2. Nutting argues that inflation-adjusted federal spending per capita may actually decrease slightly while Obama is President. I think this would be good, and if Obama gets credit for it, that’s fine– in fact, throughout the 2008 campaign he promised a “net spending cut.”

But think about why this might happen. Spending increased rapidly right before Obama came into office, largely thanks to the bank bailouts signed by President Bush (and voted for by various Senators including Obama, McCain, Biden, and Clinton). Nutting points out: “By no means did Obama try to reverse that spending. Indeed, his budget proposals called for even more spending in subsequent years. But the Congress (mostly Republicans but many Democrats, too) stopped him. If Obama had been a king who could impose his will, perhaps what the Republicans are saying about an Obama spending binge would be accurate.”

To paraphrase: Obama didn’t go on a “spending binge” because Congress wouldn’t let him. Obama will (hopefully) be able to keep his promise of a net spending cut because Congress won’t let him break his promise– and he’s blaming them for being obstructionist! O irony!

These articles have interesting approaches to the word “binge.” Apparently, if I drink a beer on Monday, then 12 beers on Tuesday, then 13 beers on Wednesday, I didn’t binge on Wednesday.