Commentary

On Spending, Bush Is No Reagan

George W. Bush is increasingly being compared to Ronald Reagan. It’s true that like Bush, Reagan came to Washington with an ambitious plan to cut taxes across-the-board and increase defense spending while containing federal spending. And Reagan, indeed, lightened the tax burden on the American people and oversaw a massive increase in defense spending. Thus, given Bush’s recent push for more pro-growth tax cuts combined with increased defense spending for the war on terrorism, the analogy is tempting.

But at this stage in his presidency, Bush’s dismal record on spending when measured against Reagan’s nullifies that temptation. Better yet, in light of Bush’s spending it looks like it would be more accurate to compare him to Jimmy Carter than to Ronald Reagan.

Let’s look at the facts. Compared to the same point in Reagan’s first term, not only is Bush a bigger spender than Reagan, he’s a big spender in his own right. Adjusted for inflation, total spending under Bush’s watch will have increased by 14 percent as opposed to 7 percent under Reagan. But more indicative of Bush’s spending problem is the run-up in discretionary spending under his watch. Discretionary spending represents funds for programs that Congress has to allocate for on an annual basis and it is the type of spending that the president has the most influence over.

Now, it is true that a sizable portion of this discretionary spending goes toward national defense. Bush will have overseen a 21 percent increase for national defense — pretty much equal to Reagan. However, the major difference between the two men is discretionary spending not related to national defense. Whereas Reagan was able to reduce non-defense discretionary outlays by 14 percent, Bush will have overseen a rise of 18 percent — a whopping 32 percent difference between the two men.

The table at the bottom compares nondefense discretionary spending levels between Reagan and Bush. President Reagan managed to cut spending in most categories. In contrast, Bush has not only failed to match Reagan in reducing spending, spending has actually gone up across the board — and often at exorbitant levels.

Reagan and Bush both inherited defense budgets that were inadequate for the threats facing the nation. As noted, both men sought — and won — substantial increases in defense spending from Congress. And, while providing for the defense of the nation is a defined responsibility of the federal government, most non-defense discretionary endeavors are not. Spending money on advanced weaponry to fight terrorism is more important than funding the National Endowment for the Arts or the Corporation for Public Broadcasting. Thus, it is Bush’s failure to limit government spending on those latter constitutionally murkier activities that prevents him from matching Reagan’s accomplishments.

Of course, the argument can be made that it is unfair to lay excessive blame on Bush for over-spending given that Congress controls the purse strings. A recent study shows that three out of the top five all-time federal spending sprees occurred in the last five years under Republican-controlled Congresses (the other two occurred during World War II). Thus, President Bush appears to have inherited a Congress with established spendthrift credentials.

However, that excuse is diminished by the fact that Bush has not vetoed a single spending bill during his three years in office. Instead, he has agreed to sign every piece of legislation crossing his desk, including a bloated farm bill and an intrusive education bill. In contrast, President Reagan vetoed 22 spending bills during his first three years in office.

In addition, Bush has been the beneficiary of a considerably more favorable party arrangement in Congress. Although Republicans controlled the Senate during Reagan’s first term, Democrats dominated the House — by a 100-seat margin at one point. Bush, on the other hand, has enjoyed the luxury of a GOP-controlled House and Senate (with the exception of a five-month loss of control in the Senate to the Democrats when GOP Sen. Jim Jeffords left the party). While Reagan was sufficiently successful at taming a doubting and often hostile Congress, Bush has demonstrated a lack of conviction in tempering the spending desires of a comparatively receptive Hill.

While President Bush is obviously aware of the benefits and the need to cut taxes as a way to trigger economic growth, the government continues to expand, bureaucratic programs blossom, and talk of eliminating entire government departments is a distant memory. No, Bush is no Reagan. And despite the self-proclaimed party of limited government controlling the White House and the Congress, it continues to move further and further away from the limited government envisioned by our founding fathers.

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Veronique de Rugy is a fiscal policy analyst and Tad DeHaven is a research assistant at the Cato Institute.