Presidential Spending

Interest from an NYT reporter the other day prompted me to update data on federal spending by presidential term. The latest data show that the current President Bush is the biggest spender since Bush I, Ford, Carter, or FDR, depending on which spending category one considers.

The table shows annual average spending growth in real, or inflation-adjusted, dollars. It accounts for the different length of each president’s tenure. I have included data for Bush II’s first six years (FY2001 to FY2007). 

Looking at the rows in the table:

  • In overall outlays, Bush II is the biggest spender since Carter.
  • In defense, Bush II is the biggest spender since FDR (not shown).
  • In total nondefense spending (including entitlements), Bush I and Bush II both have records of big spending.
  • In nondefense discretionary spending, Bush II is the biggest spender since Ford.
  • Finally, in total noninterest spending, Bush II is again the biggest spender since Ford.

Comparing the first and last rows shows the difference that interest costs make. Bush II has benefited from low interest costs, which have partly offset high program costs in recent years. That has made Bush II’s fiscal record look a bit better than it actually is because the low interest costs are mainly thanks to four balanced budgets under Clinton. 

But isn’t Congress responsible for federal spending? No, Congress shares the responsibility with the White House. Presidents set the overall tone for spending and they hold a powerful veto pen. Bush II’s big spending record, as shown in the data, is reflective of the big spending policy agenda set by his administration.