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.

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James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is Professor and Department Head of Security Studies at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College and a nonresident senior fellow at the Scowcroft Center for Strategy and Security at the Atlantic Council. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm vet. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.

Comments

  1. M1EK says:

    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.

    Conflating Afghanistan spending (necessary and just) with Iraq war spending (stupid and truly optional) is where this piece went off non-partisan, in case James is wondering.

  2. carpeicthus says:

    More than the spending, the problem is so much of the money is going to things not in the public good. Preventative health care, for example, can save money in the long run, but these days we’re obsessed with throwing money down the toilet.

  3. Whether it’s the right decision or not, we are in Afghanistan, and we are in Iraq. that, in and of itself, accounts for the spending. And don’t think for a minute that Congress doesn’t have an equal share of the blame as far as the fiduciary side goes.

  4. Andy says:

    that, in and of itself, accounts for the spending.

    Except that it doesn’t. Indeed, you have to go so far as reading the post in question to know that you’re being ridiculous.

  5. anjin-san says:

    James, please.

    The man never once vetoed a spending bill until the Democrats took congress over, then he discovered the veto pen. He is not interested in controlling spending, just creating the appearance of an irrersponsible congress being reined in by “the good steward of the people money”.

    Pardon me while I puke. Bush was perfectly happy to screw children out of medical coverage for strictly partisan motives. The same kids will be paying off his spending spree decades from now, so Bush gets to screw them twice…

  6. Joe R. says:

    And they get to pay for his Social Security benefits, so he gets to screw them THREE times.

  7. Christopher says:

    Um, guys, he has been fighting a war on 2 fronts. Give him a break. And the entire deficit is made up of the war on terror. Hardly something to chastise him about, especially democrats since they support ALL of it. Every bit. 100%.

    Libs are the biggest hypocrites in the history of man. Way to go! You guys finally accomplished something.

  8. Wyatt Earp says:

    Andy – Please. The Congress deserves just as much blame as Bush, if not more. Why? Because if they were truly worried about the outrageous spending, they would eliminate much of it – by pulling the funding for the war. They refuse to do so, so any complainants from the Dems will sound hollow at best.

  9. Michael says:

    Presidents don’t spend money on their own; Congress is a major driver.

    And don’t think for a minute that Congress doesn’t have an equal share of the blame as far as the fiduciary side goes.

    The Congress deserves just as much blame as Bush, if not more.

    You guy’s aren’t exactly helping your party out with these comments you know. It’s not like all the spending increase was in the past year alone.

    Because if they were truly worried about the outrageous spending, they would eliminate much of it – by pulling the funding for the war. They refuse to do so, so any complainants from the Dems will sound hollow at best.

    I seem to remember the Democrats in congress introducing several bills to wind-down the war, or at least troop levels. Many didn’t pass an up or down vote, but others were either filibustered* or vetoed, weren’t they?

    * By Filibustered I mean there was a rumor of a threat of a possible filibuster and the Dem leadership caved and pulled the bill. See, we progressive Democrats do hold our party leaders responsible for not reigning in spending, do you?

  10. M1EK says:

    And don’t think for a minute that Congress doesn’t have an equal share of the blame as far as the fiduciary side goes.

    When Congress was lied to about the state of the intelligence (see Bob Graham), I think that, while not blameless, they certainly don’t have an equal share. The executive certainly bears more responsibility here.

  11. mw says:

    What Slivinski and Lightman are documenting here, is the effect of divided vs. unified government. The two biggest spenders are GWB and LB J. LBJ led a unified Democratic Government. GWB led a unified Republican government. Since GWB faced a divided government this year, spending increases have dropped to around 3%.

    To my knowledge, William Niskanen, former Reagan Ecomonic Advisor, was the first to document this effect.

    Slivinski has made this comparison of GWB to LBJ before. He noted it an analysis last year and in his book “Buck Wild”.

  12. Oh heavens, we all know that Bill Clinton faced no domestic terrorist attacks. The ’93 WTC bombing was, from what I understand, just a prank, and Oklahoma City was not terrorism because it was perpetrated by a white Christian from Kansas.

  13. James Joyner says:

    Oh heavens, we all know that Bill Clinton faced no domestic terrorist attacks. The ’93 WTC bombing was, from what I understand, just a prank, and Oklahoma City was not terrorism because it was perpetrated by a white Christian from Kansas.

    Nobody said there were no terrorist attacks under Clinton. Just that actually doing something about them is expensive.

  14. Nobody except yourself, James.

    James Joyner said: “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.”

    Clinton had major terrorist attacks on our soil. Clinton dealt with them by convicting more than a dozen terrorists and conspirators. Some were executed, and some were sentenced to prison terms in excess of 200 years.

    Bush, on the other hand, has bungled every terrorism prosecution during his presidency.

  15. Hal says:

    Just that actually doing something about them is expensive.

    Indeed. And what has accomplished? Let’s see, we have more terrorist now than we had before 9/11, we have a training ground where they’ve been taking graduate courses in urban warfare. Afghanistan is precariously sliding back into the Taliban’s hands. They’ve had a record crop of Opium, major source of funding for the self same terrorists, not to mention a scourge in and of itself, every year since we’ve “won”. Bush took his eye off bin Laden and pulled troops out of Afghanistan to focus on Iraq and the dude is still making tapes and laughing at us.

    And then there’s the stuff Bush has done inside the US, like apportion security expenditures by state as political payouts rather than by prioritized threat. There’s the languishing port security which hasn’t been funded. There’s the fact that our police/fire/etc communications still haven’t been fixed. Oh, and thanks to the Iraq whatever it is you think is happening over there but don’t call it a civil war, our National Guard – primary responders – are out of equipment, out of manpower, etc.

    Not to mention the breaking of our millitary in a way that the Republicans believed Clinton did.

    Bravo!

    Yes, lot’s of money spent. Jack sh*t to show for it.