Bush Biggest Spender Since LBJ
President Bush is the biggest spender since LBJ, reports McClatchy’s David Lightman.
George W. Bush, despite all his recent bravado about being an apostle of small government and budget-slashing, is the biggest spending president since Lyndon B. Johnson. In fact, he’s arguably an even bigger spender than LBJ.
When adjusted for inflation, discretionary spending — or budget items that Congress and the president can control, including defense and domestic programs, but not entitlements such as Social Security and Medicare — shot up at an average annual rate of 5.3 percent during Bush’s first six years, Slivinski calculates. That tops the 4.6 percent annual rate Johnson logged during his 1963-69 presidency. By these standards, Ronald Reagan was a tightwad; discretionary spending grew by only 1.9 percent a year on his watch. Discretionary spending went up in Bush’s first term by 48.5 percent, not adjusted for inflation, more than twice as much as Bill Clinton did (21.6 percent) in two full terms, Slivinski reports.
To some extent, this framework is misleading. Presidents don’t spend money on their own; Congress is a major driver. Further, external circumstances matter a lot. That renders the rate of growth metric absurd. For that matter, one could argue that the rate of spending is much less important than the ratio of spending to GDP or the ratio of spending to revenues.
Of course discretionary spending is up for Bush over Clinton. The latter enjoyed the luxury of a post-Cold War lull while the former had to deal with a major terrorist attack on our soil.
Defense spending is the big driver — but hardly the only one. Under Bush it’s grown on average by 5.7 percent a year. Under LBJ — who had a war to fund, too — it rose by 4.9 percent a year. Both numbers are adjusted for inflation. Including costs for fighting in Iraq and Afghanistan, defense spending under Bush has gone up 86 percent since 2001, according to Chris Hellman of the Center for Arms Control and Non-Proliferation. Current annual defense spending — not counting war costs — is 25 percent above the height of the Reagan-era buildup, Hellman said.
Homeland security spending also has soared, to about $31 billion last year, triple the pre-9/11 number.
One can argue, of course, that much of this is “optional” and an overreaction to the 9-11 attacks. If so, though, it’s a bipartisan one.
But Bush’s super-spending is about far more than defense and homeland security.
Brian Riedl, a budget analyst at the Heritage Foundation, a conservative research group, points to education spending. Adjusted for inflation, it’s up 18 percent annually since 2001, thanks largely to Bush’s No Child Left Behind act.
This is a fair point, to be sure. Then again, it’s part of a trend toward more federal spending in an area that was until rather recently left to state and local government. Surely, a President Gore or a President Kerry would not have cut education spending?
The 2002 farm bill, he said, caused agriculture spending to double its 1990s levels.
That’s not really true. What the bill did was to plan in advance for routine, nature-related disaster relief that had been cosigned to emergency appropriations in the 1996 bill. Further, Bush was ultimately dragged kicking and screaming to this by a sudden takeover of the Senate by Democrats after the defection of Jim Jeffords.
Then there was the 2003 Medicare prescription drug benefit — the biggest single expansion in the program’s history — whose 10-year costs are estimated at more than $700 billion.
And the 2005 highway bill, which included thousands of “earmarks,” or special local projects stuck into the legislation by individual lawmakers without review, cost $295 billion.
He could have vetoed these things, to be sure, but I don’t see Medicare benefits or earmarks declining come January 2009, regardless of who’s elected president. The public continues to demand that the federal government intervene in more sectors of the economy. In those where there’s a consensus toward smaller government — farm subsidies being a prime example — the minority is far more energized and organized.
The Iraq War will be over at some point and military spending may decline somewhat. But I don’t expect that it’ll take another forty years for this record to be broken.