The Champions of Discretionary Spending

On September 26, 2007, in General, by Neil Stevens

It’s been brought to my attention that I made another error: I slipped up and shifted by one the years to which I credited each President. Ronald Reagan, to use the example given by the person who corrected me, took office in 1981, of course, so his first budget applied to the year 1982.

Combine this with other criticisms, and I’m just going to try it again soon with a new approach to the problem.

I tell you: never have I gotten a true appreciation for how easy it is to lie with statistics, than in making honest attempts to see where the Bush administration stands historically with respect to spending. There are just so many ways to chop and analyze the numbers, with every way telling a different story.

We all know the of story of the federal budget. While ‘mandatory’ entitlement spending is a runaway wreck, Presidents and Congresses have had differing success in controlling so-called discretionary spending. And the most ‘fiscally conservative’ President in that regard was President Clinton, thanks to ‘divided government’ forcing restraint. And of course the worst two were Presidents Lyndon Johnson and George W. Bush, who ran amok creating and growing programs thanks to one-party rule creating no opposition to waste.

I’m sorry to tell you this, but that story’s not quite right. Here’s why:

The traditional lament of the ‘fiscal conservative’ goes something like this: We look at how much ‘discretionary’ spending went up under various Presidents, and we do indeed find that discretionary spending went up most under Presidents Johnson and G.W. Bush, as this chart shows:

Discretionary Spending Growth by President

Allegedly, according to this simple calculation, the most fiscally disciplined Presidents were President GHW Bush, Nixon, and Clinton. Reagan and Carter are in the middle of the pack, and yes, Johnson and GW Bush stick out like Christmas Shoppers with black American Express cards.

What do President Johnson’s elected term and President G.W. Bush’s first term have in common though? War. Do conservatives consider defense spending in Vietnam or Afghanistan and Iraq to be wasteful, liberal growths in government that are to be discouraged? Of course not. We all know that if you’re an anti-war budget hawk your name is Ron Paul, and nobody likes Ron Paul. So let’s subtract defense spending and try this again:

Discretionary Spending Growth by President, minus Defense

Well lookee-here. Golden boy Clinton goes from the minus side all the way up above zero for both terms. It turns out that gee, he was spending after all, but used cuts in the military to pay for it. And the hero of the day should actually be Ronald Reagan, who held the line rather well both terms.

And what happened to our goats? Presidents Johnson and GW Bush dropped three places each, leaving Richard Nixon and Jimmy Carter our worst spending Presidents since 1964! In fact, President GW Bush looks quite a lot like his father for his first term, and in his second term is shaping up to look like Clinton.

I conclude this: President Bush is no President Reagan, but to accuse him and the last few Congresses of runaway spending, is to neglect the whole story. Other than the war and Medicare Part D, President Bush is simply nothing special either way, and I do not believe that ‘fiscal conservatives’ should feel like they have been put out into the cold in recent years. Because on top of spending, we must remember the other half of the equation: taxes. Does anyone care to say that President Bush is not the second-best President on this list when it comes to taxes? Other than Ronald Reagan, who cut tax rates better? Nobody, that’s who.

It’s time to unify in the runup to 2008. No one faction has gotten everything it would want out of the Bush administration, but self-described fiscal conservatives should not be hanging their heads saying they’ve been put out into the cold. Ronald Reagan is not walking through that door, and we have to do the best we can without him. Now is not the time to fight and try to get even for an alleged grievance. We’ve all done well enough that we should be looking to build on success, not try to scramble to make up for some defeat.

It’s time to pull together and win.

Notes: I break the two-term Presidencies into separate terms to facilitate comparison with single-term Presidents, as well as President GW Bush whose second term is not yet done. This also allows us to mentally adjust for Congressional makeup as we see fit.

Source for all data used in the charts: Congressional Budget Office historical budget figures, which go back to 1962, which is why these charts begin with Lyndon Johnson’s budgets for 1965-68. Please contact me if you know of reliable budget data prior to 1962, particularly if it is Internet-accessible.


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