It’s a Grand Old Party and Can Spend if it Wants To

“George W. Bush” and “fiscal conservative” in the same sentence? Not likely.

The Cato Institute recently published a policy analysis paper comparing the spending proclivities of W’s administration compared with the preceding six presidents. You can get the paper here: The Grand Old Spending Party: How Republicans Became Big Spenders.

From the paper’s executive summary:

President 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 is still the biggest-spending president in 30 years.

I tend to think visually, so I like lots of charts and graphs. This paper doesn’t disappoint. I recreated a couple of its graphs that support the claims quoted above.

First: “President Bush has presided over the largest overall increase in inflation-adjusted federal spending since Lyndon B. Johnson.” Please note the careful wording: “presided over.” The paper makes clear that “Congress passed budgets that spent a total of $91 billion more than the president requested for domestic programs.” Even so, Bush signed these budgets. Had fiscal responsibility been a true goal, he could have used the veto power. And let’s not forget, Bush has had a Republican majority in Congress.1

But wait, I hear you objecting — What about the cost of the war on terrorism? Certainly that accounts for Bush’s increases in spending. You’d be right, in part. The paper documents the changes in “discretionary spending” and “entitlement spending” but includes military spending in the discretionary class. Why not exclude defense, homeland-security, and entitlement spending in the comparison, resulting in what many (most?) would call true “discretionary spending”?2

Fortunately, the paper anticipated our request. And, unfortunately for those of us who pay taxes, the picture doesn’t get any better.

President George W. Bush is once again second in the rankings, this time following Nixon. It may be blasphemy, but the combination of Clinton and a Republican Congress kept spending relatively low. Not surprising for an administration that harped, “It’s the economy, stupid.” Only Reagan had a real reduction.

Fiscal conservative W? I don’t think so.

Hat tip: The Volokh Conspiracy.

  1. The paper notes the increased spending that results from a “united government,” where both the executive branch and the majority of the legislative branch are of the same party. When the two branches are of different parties, one tends to oppose the spending of the other. When they are of the same party, neither opposes the spending excesses of the other. 
  2. Many may not want to include entitlement spending in discretionary spending because it cannot be decreased without an intense political battle. In arguing this point, one should remember that Bush had no difficulty increasing entitlement spending with his prescription drug benefit, which the Cato Institute describes as “the largest expansion of Medicare since its inception.” 

By Brent Logan

Engineer. Lawyer. WordPress geek. Longboarder. Blood donor. Photographer. More about Brent.


  1. Funny that CATO only gets pissed at Bush’s spending after they shilled for all his tax cuts.

    And also funny that they compare government spending under different Presidents, but don’t look at how this influences economic growth.

    Or might that be related to the fact that growth is higher under Democrats?

  2. Jasper, I’m not surprised that CATO only complains when Bush isn’t doing what CATO wants. And since CATO’s been around longer than Bush has been in office, maybe it was Bush who shilled for CATO’s tax cuts.

    By the way, thanks for the link. The summary is quite interesting; I’ll want to read the papers.

    If you ignore the foreign policy impacts on the economy (pretty tough to do after 9/11, but hang with me, here…), the combination of Clinton and a Republican Congress did wonders for the U.S. economy. The CATO paper talks about the benefit of having the president and Congress be of separate parties to keep spending down. I wonder what the impact of having a divided government is on economic growth.

What do you think?