The grand old spending party.

Author:Slivinski, Stephen
Position::Economics
 
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Pres. George W. Bush has presided over the largest overall increase in inflation-adjusted Federal spending since Lyndon B. Johnson. Even after excluding spending on defense and homeland security, Bush still is the biggest-spending president in almost 40 years. His 2006 budget does not cut enough pork to change his place in history, either.

Total government spending grew by 33% during Bush's first term. The Federal budget as a share of the economy grew from 18.5% of gross domestic product on former Pres. Bill Clinton's last day in office to 20.3% by the end of Bush's first term. Moreover, the Republican Congress enthusiastically has assisted the budget bloat. Inflation-adjusted spending on the combined budgets of the 101 largest programs it vowed to eliminate in 1995 has grown by 27%.

The GOP once was effective at controlling nondefense spending. The final nondefense budgets under Clinton were a combined $57,000,000,000 smaller than what he proposed from 1996-2001. Under Bush, Congress passed budgets that spent $91,000,000,000 more than the President requested for domestic programs. Bush signed every one of those bills during his first term. Even if Congress passes the new budget exactly as proposed, not a single cabinet-level agency will be smaller than when Bush assumed office.

Republicans could reform the budget roles that stack the deck in favor of more spending, but senior House Republicans are fighting the changes. The GOP establishment in Washington today has become a defender of big government. Once upon a time, the Republican Party frequently made the case for smaller government and occasionally backed up the rhetoric with action. Republicans won a historic electoral victory in 1994 partly by trumpeting their opposition to the big-spending congressional leadership and offering the alternative of balancing the budget by cutting spending. The first budget proposed by the GOP majority in 1995 eliminated three cabinet agencies and more than 200 Federal programs.

Ten years later, the Republicans in Congress and the White House have become staunch defenders of big government. They have presided over the largest increase in spending since LBJ's Great Society. As a reporter for the Los Angeles limes put it: "No longer are Republicans arguing with Democrats about whether government should be big or small. Instead they are at odds over what kind of big government the U.S. should have."

A Washington Post headline read: "Blueprint Calls for Bigger, More Powerful Government." Former Speaker of me House Newt Gingrich laments what has happened during the last decade: "Republicans have lost their way," he declares. Most of that reversal occurred during Bush's first term. Government spending has grown from $1.86 trillion to $2.48 trillion since 2001. Total growth in the Federal budget in Bush's first term equaled $616,400,000,000.

Some of that increased expenditure was a result of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan as well as homeland security measures, but nondefense spending also has gone up dramatically. Since Bush took office, domestic spending has skyrocketed 36%.

The story of the growth of government under GOP control still is being written. However, the actions of Pres. Bush and Republican congressional leaders do not reflect a political party that is at all serious about making government smaller. For instance, the President's prescription drug benefit--the largest expansion of Medicare since its inception--is expected to cost more than $720,000,000,000 over 10 years and far more in subsequent years. In fact, spending on Medicare jumps by 17% for FY2006 in Bush's new budget, one of the largest increases in the program since 1982. The Congressional Budget Office estimates that net spending on the drug benefit will rise from $2,000,000,000 in 2005 to $32,800,000,000 in 2006.

Bush has signed into law only four budgets so far, whereas LBJ signed five into law during his presidency. In other words, Bush and a Republican Congress have expanded the Federal government almost as fast as did Johnson and a Democratic Congress--and in less time.

Bush's 2006 budget expands overall government spending by 3.5%. Although that is a slower rate of spending growth than the rates of his previous budgets, it comes on top of a 38% increase over four years.

Discretionary spending--on the programs that Congress and the president haggle over every year, such as education, energy, housing, commerce, and defense--has been growing the fastest under Bush. This category excludes spending on "entitlements" such as Social Security and Medicare, as well as food stamps, most welfare programs, and interest payments on the national debt. The trend of years past when entitlement spending was the driver of budget growth has been reversed. Discretionary--including defense--spending has outstripped entitlement spending in three of the past four years.

Some analysts have argued that overall Federal spending should be expected to rise during an economic recession. As the Center for Budget and Policy Priorities has suggested, "More people lose their jobs and qualify for [Federal] assistance." Some of that assistance comes through entitlement programs and that spending clearly has grown substantially more slowly during the past few years than has discretionary spending. That was not the case during the last recession of the early 1990s. Even the 2005 growth rate of five percent is higher than that of any other year since 1985.

Members of Pres. Bush's staff argue that much of the growth in discretionary spending is essential to defending the U.S. against the threat of terrorism here and abroad. For instance, Joshua Bolten, head of the White House Office of Management and Budget, wrote in the Wall Street Journal, "Most critics of the president's fiscal record begin by saying they support the additional spending that has been necessary to respond to 9/11 and the global war on terror, but they then proceed to complain about spending levels that are largely made up of those costs."

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