Who's the Biggest Spender? Did the Federal Government Spend More under George Bush Sr., Bill Clinton, or George W. Bush? the Record May Surprise You

Article excerpt

According to conventional wisdom, the federal government grows faster when a Democrat is in the White House than it does when a Republican is president. Yet the record shows that federal spending actually grew at a slower rate under liberal Democrat Bill Clinton than it did under President George Bush (the elder), or is now growing under President George W. Bush. The record also shows that during Clinton's presidency, unlike either Bush administration, the federal government actually recorded budget "surpluses"--although these reported surpluses were not based on reality (more on this below). In fact, looking back at the Clinton era from the vantage point of today's runaway deficit spending, the Clinton presidency now appears to have been a period of relative fiscal restraint book-ended by two bigger-spending presidents named Bush.

Admittedly, Mr. Clinton does not deserve the credit for this relative achievement, since he had difficulty getting all of his big-spending proposals through Congress. Had he succeeded, he may well have come out on top as the nation's all-time profligate. However, liberal Democrats like Clinton must always contend with congressional Republicans who oppose their big-spending programs--if not to tally, at least to a degree. Republican presidents, on the other hand, are able to get many of their fellow Republicans in Congress to support them, not only because of party loyalty, bar also because the Democrats always make sure that the Republican president's spendthrift proposals appear "conservative" compared to what they would like to spend.

Democrats may complain that Republican "socialist-lite" programs are insufficient, but they are still implementing the Democratic agenda, albeit on the installment plan, when Republicans join them in increasing the size and cost of government. The irony is that, when a liberal Democrat is in the White House, the liberal Democrats have a tougher time getting their congressional agenda implemented because of Republican resistance.

This is not just theory. Under the two Bush presidencies and the Clinton presidency it has been reality.

Spend and Spend

Graph #1 shows how much the government has spent each year from 1989* through 2004. During the administration of "conservative" Republican George Bush (the elder), federal outlays grew at an annualized rate of 5.4 percent, from $1.144 trillion in 1989 to $1.409 trillion in 1993. When liberal Democrat Bill Clinton occupied the White House, federal spending continued to climb, but at a slower annualized rate of 3.6 percent, reaching $1.864 trillion in 2001.

More recently, with "conservative" Republican George W. Bush in the White House, federal spending has not only continued to rise, but has risen at a faster rate. In 2002 the federal government spent $2.011 trillion, a 7.9 percent increase over the previous year. In 2003, federal outlays were $2.158 trillion, a 7.3 percent increase. For the current fiscal year ending on September 30, the Bush administration estimates federal spending at $2.319 trillion, a 7.5 percent increase. In short: Federal spending is now growing more than twice as fast with George W. Bush in the White House than it did when Clinton was president.

Of course, much of the increase in spending during George W. Bush's tenure has been for the Defense Department, very much including the war in Iraq, which, a growing number of Americans are coming to realize, was not a defensive war to protect America but an offensive war to enforce UN resolutions and empower the world body. But with Mr. Bush in the White House and Republican majorities in both houses of Congress, the federal budget has grown in other areas as well. Consider:

* Federal outlays for the Department of Agriculture, which includes the food stamp program as well as farm subsidies, have grown from $68.0 billion in 2001 to an estimated $77.7 billion in 2004.

* Spending for the Department of Education has grown from $35. …