Commentary

Another Budget Deal? Guard Your Wallet

By Stephen Moore
March 24, 1997

Newt Gingrich and other Republican leaders continue to talk excitedly about an upcoming budget deal with Bill Clinton. Why any fiscal conservative would view this prospect with anything but fear and contempt is never fully explained. Republicans haven’t even come to the bargaining table yet, but Gingrich has already thrown away the GOP’s primary bargaining chip: tax cuts. The last time Republicans negotiated with Bill Clinton on the budget — in September 1996 — Congress approved $12 billion in new deficit spending to fund a grab bag of the president’s pet projects. In return, Republicans got … well, nothing. That was the most one-sided deal since the Chicago Cubs traded future hall of famer Lou Brock to the St. Louis Cardinals for Ernie Broglio.

Will Republicans ever snap out of their collective delusion that Bill Clinton is serious about cutting the budget? The greatest political non-surprise of the year so far was the Congressional Budget Office’s announcement that President Clinton’s budget does not balance the budget in 2002, 2005, or ever. Even with all of the gimmickry in the Clinton budget — such as counting the premiums from expanding risky Federal Housing Administration mortgage guarantees as new revenues — the White House fiscal plan would still leave a deficit of more than $100 billion five years from now.

That was entirely predictable. Bill Clinton’s budget plans have always been far more financially reckless than his fiscal tightwad rhetoric. The White House takes full credit for the “enormous progress” in the decline in red ink since 1993’s $500 billion “deficit reduction” package. It turns out that we can roughly calculate how much of the deficit decline is attributable to Clinton and how much to the Republican Congress. Back in April 1995, just before the Republicans released their seven-year balanced-budget plan, the CBO announced that Clinton’s deficit reduction plan would produce $211 billion in red ink in 1996.

Instead, the deficit was half that level, or $107 billion. That $104 billion improvement is almost entirely attributable to tighter spending restraints than Clinton wanted.

In fact, over the entire seven-year period (1996-2002) congressional Republicans will have chopped a shade over $1 trillion ($1,000,000,000,000) of deficit spending from the Clintonomics baseline. This is said not to applaud congressional Republicans — who have quivered at the thought of slaying even the most dimwitted federal spending programs — but to underscore the extent to which Bill Clinton is an obstacle, not an ally, when it comes to ending the era of big government.

Presidential Budget Requests Compared
with Spending Approved by Congress
($ billions)
Ford, 1976-77 -$38
Carter, 1978-81 -$143
Reagan, 1982-89 -$209
Bush, 1990-93 -$95
Clinton, 1994-97 $112
Source: Institute for Policy Innovation, Lewisville, Texas, 1996.

In a recent study for the Institute for Policy Innovation, Mark Byrd and I compared White House budget requests with the amounts actually spent by Congress under every president from Gerald Ford through Bill Clinton. The accompanying table shows the results, three of which are particularly noteworthy:

1) Not too surprisingly, Congress outspent the White House throughout every administration from Gerald Ford’s to George Bush’s. The total excess federal spending by Congress between 1976 and 1992 was $485 billion. Over that time period the federal government amassed $2.8 trillion in debt. Roughly 17 percent of the increase in the national debt was a result of Congress’s spending more than presidents requested.

2) It is a widespread myth — perpetuated by Sen. Robert Byrd of West Virginia — that the Democratic Congresses in the 1980s spent less than Reagan requested. Although Reagan never submitted a balanced budget, his budget requests were far below the level approved by Congress. In every year Congress spent more than was requested for a total of $209 billion in extra spending over eight years.

3) Only one president in the study period outspent Congress: Bill Clinton. The Clinton administration’s budget requests have exceeded congressional spending by $112 billion over the past four years.

Bill Clinton can deservedly crow about one accomplishment: his overall fiscal performance has been superior to that of his predecessor George Bush. Of course, in some ways that comparison may not be entirely fair to Bush. Richard Darman never worked for Bill Clinton.

Still, the unalterable fact of Bill Clinton’s first term is that if Congress had approved carte blanche all White House spending requests, the deficit in recent years would have been substantially higher, not lower.

Amazingly, Clinton even managed to outspend Congress by about $54 billion when it was controlled by Democrats Tom Foley and George Mitchell — hardly known for their fiscal tightfistedness. On at least three separate occasions in 1993 and 1994 — the fiscal stimulus package, the Clinton health plan, and the crime bill — the president attempted to make the deficit situation worse but was undercut by members of his own party.

In four other instances, bipartisan deficit reduction initiatives were rebuked by Clinton. “Penny-Kasich would have been enacted into law,” recalls a still-frustrated Tim Penny, the Democratic co-sponsor of the package of spending cuts, “if the President had not feverishly rallied the entire White House lobbying operation against it.” The same might be said of the failed balanced-budget amendment this year.

Meanwhile, congressional Republicans — particularly the leadership — have governed over the past three months as if their primary constituency were the Washington press corps, which desperately wants a budget deal, not the voters that sent them here.

Stephen Moore is director of fiscal policy studies at the Cato Institute. Stephen Moore is director of fiscal policy studies at the Cato Institute.