Bryan Caplan  

How Big a Spender Was Bush II?

Stimulus Without Multipliers... Market Failure and Government ...
Compared to all presidents, 1952-2008, here's Bush II's record:

Measure #1: Annual Change in Total Real Spending: 4.9% - second only to LBJ

Measure #2: Annual Change in Total Real Spending, not counting interest on the federal debt: 4.6% - second only to LBJ

Measure #3: Annual Change in Total Real Non-Defense Spending, not counting interest: 5.4% - fifth.

Fun fact: Republicans presided over both the largest and smallest changes in Measure #3: It grew at 9.8% under Nixon and 1.0% under Reagan.

Extra fun fact: Even by Measure #3, Clinton was second only to Reagan.

HT: Chris Edwards

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COMMENTS (14 to date)
mcalarry writes:

Annual change in spending, adjusted for inflation or not, seems like a highly selective metric intended to enforce a particular point of view. Why not use % of GDP?

Jack writes:

Congress is where spending bills originate, so Presidents can only ask for, or veto any final bills. So I'd place more "blame" with congress than any president.

With (the biggest spender) LBJ, you had a Dem majority in congress... and you're seeing a very similar dynamic playing out right now.

With Clinton, you had a (rare) Rep (consv) majority, which is (largely) why spending was lower under him than most other years. I'd give Clinton credit for being a pragmatist, but his first choice was NOT to cut spending (that much), especially during a booming (computer hardware & software, etc) economic era. The left still "blames" him for "going along" with many of the Rep's welfare & other reform ideas, even though they were fiscally sound & successful.

Bush II deserves blame for not vetoing anything, but so does congress for not getting rid of (so many) wasteful (spending) dept's & programs.

A question I have is... how much did debt (outlays) play into each administrations "spending" results? Of course, our "unfunded liabilities," now around 100 trillion, is a "spending" disaster waiting to happen.

Patrick R. Sullivan writes:

Clinton can thank Phil Gramm for his score. Clinton operated under the spending constraints of the 1990 budget reforms, and in 1994 lost his congressional majorities to Gingrich et al.

Matt writes:

Interestingly enough, both Reagan and Clinton did not have their party as a majority in Congress. Also, they did not have any major wars. I'm not a historian on either one of their presidencies, but I would guess that their fiscal success would largely be attributed to "gridlock."

In other words, the less Congress and the President accomplish, the better off Americans are. Does anyone have statistics that support or disprove this notion?

SydB writes:

"Congress is where spending bills originate"

Um, like maybe someone should learn to read wikipedia (or any other source on US government).

"The Budget of the United States Government is the President's proposal to the U.S. Congress which recommends funding levels for the next fiscal year, beginning October 1."

Ed Hanson writes:

There are all sorts of measures that would provide additional good information, as pointed out by the previous comments. If I could see a single additional measure, it would be the increase in government revenue and the Bush position on that list. It is an unfortunate reality, if the government gets the money, it will find a way to spend it.

And BTW, I'll bet dollar to donuts that measure #3 is a lot narrower in measure than just not including defense and interest. Perhaps the measure is closer to what is conveniently called non-defense discretionary spending.

eccdogg writes:

Combinations from worst to best IMO.

Democratic President/Democratic Congress
Republican President/Republican Congress
Republican President/Democratic(or split)Congress
Democratic President/Republican(or split)Congress

Seems to fit the data pretty well.

Floccina writes:

Yeah, I did not appreciate Clinton at the time but I must admit that he was one of the least bad presidents. He is up there with Warren G Harding who was perhaps the least bad president but IMO they were all bad.

Dirtyrottenvarmint writes:

I do not want to endorse the profligate spending habits of the U.S. government during the Bush Presidency, but like mcalarry I find numbers from thin air meaningless without some relative comparison such as, perhaps, GDP.

It would also be interesting to see how much of the increase in non-defense spending during Bush's 2 terms in office was Discretionary, as compared with Discretionary increases in spending during LBJ's one-and-a-half terms as President.

eccdogg are your combinations based on what you can actually observe from historical accounts? Because my preferred combination would be something along the lines of

Good Government / Good Government. If we're allowed to choose. How about if you and I turn out for the "Good Government" party. Frankly I don't see the need for any of the other parties anyways.

Floccina, if you knew that during Clinton's Presidency Osama bin Laden declared war on the United States, clearly expressed his intent to perpetrate terrorist attacks which would kill thousands and perhaps even millions of Americans, that President Clinton was directly, personally well aware of this fact and of the details of bin Laden's intent and his organization's capabilities, that members of the U.S. military and non-military intelligence services had multiple opportunities to take bin Laden into custody, and that President Clinton personally ordered agents not to take bin Laden into custody...would this change your opinion of his presidency at all? You do know that Al Qaeda successfully carried out an act of war against a U.S. naval vessel in October of 2000, while Clinton was President. Right?

Or, supposing you knew that during Clinton's Presidency the U.S. economy was blessed with one of the largest percentage increases in economic wealth and income for some time, and yet by the end of Clinton's Presidency this increase was on its way to disappearing, the nation had, not fewer non-discretionary future debt obligations, but vastly more, and a military force whose manpower and fighting readiness had been largely crippled by budget would this affect your opinion? Floccina, would you mind telling us exactly why you think Clinton was one of the "least bad" Presidents? And, if you don't mind answering - are you female?

It's interesting that your other "least bad" President is Warren Harding, a man who presided over a post-war economic boom, spoke out weakly against lynching but quickly shut up after the KKK complained, was noted for appointing his friends and political cronies to cabinet and other high office positions, tried his hand at negotiating peace treaties with Germany and Austria, and then managed to die not only before he could live to see the results of his policy choices, but even before his term was over. He also was active in U.S. politics before the reign of FDR. Comparing pre-FDR U.S. politics to post-FDR politics is a bit like comparing pre-Lincoln race relations to post-Lincoln race relations. Yes you can sort of point out some underlying themes and currents, but there is a Big Change right in the middle there that sort of points to a clear divide, the two sides of which are not really comparable.

I went back to make sure that you did not say "least bad presidency" as some of the other commenters have indicated that Clinton's non-military budget restraint was largely due to a Republican Congress. But nope, you said "least bad Presidents."

Thomas Sewell writes:

I'd prefer a comparison of budgets that Presidents proposed to congress vs. what that Congress actually passed. That would much more clearly differentiate who was responsible for how much of the spending.

Either way, it's pretty clear that when you do the same measurements in 2012, Obama is going to top all spending lists.

By any measure, post WW-II Presidents (which is the time frame we're talking here) all proposed and their Congress spent WAY more in one year than probably all pre-civil war Presidents combined. Even adjusted for inflation.

How did we survive as a nation to grow so much while the Federal Government was so small?

Or maybe the answer to that is contained in the question.

David C writes:

The reason GDP is avoided is because recessions throw the numbers off. If government spending as percentage of GDP is used, then Nixon, Ford, Bush I, and Obama's numbers would be inflated while Clinton, Reagan, LBJ, and JFK would have their numbers decreased.

The main problem with Bush II is that he did all of that while lowering taxes.

In regards to LBJ, the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and Voting Rights Act were a pretty big deal.

I had no idea Eisenhower was such a small government advocate.

"Either way, it's pretty clear that when you do the same measurements in 2012, Obama is going to top all spending lists." - Thomas Sewell

I don't think you realize how far ahead of the pack Bush II and LBJ are. The major spending pieces of the current health care bill don't go into effect until 2014. The only thing pushing Obama's numbers up really is the stimulus package, which was 40% tax cuts. Besides, CBO projections are for outlays to decrease in 2010.

Possible spending avenues are from a jobs bill or a major ramp up of troops in Afghanistan beyond what he's already announced. Both look unlikely at this point. A banking regulations bill is unlikely to significantly change spending outlays and the cap-and-trade bill costs are so small as to barely be worth considering. He's likely to lose his supermajority in 2011, and right now, Obama could propose anything and the Republicans would try to filibuster it, so he won't get anything passed after that either. Obama would have to change his plans pretty dramatically to beat LBJ by 2012.

Snorri Godhi writes:

The funniest fact, for me at least, is that the only general in the list is also the only President who cut defense spending enough to compensate for the increase in non-defense spending -- even though the latter increase was huge during his presidency.

That reminds me of an even funnier fact that I noticed some time ago: all the generals turned dictators in the xx century managed to invade, between them, only East Timor and the Falklands. (Please correct me if I forgot something.) Compare that with the two corporals turned dictators in Italy and Germany.

eccdogg writes:

"Good Government / Good Government. If we're allowed to choose. How about if you and I turn out for the "Good Government" party. Frankly I don't see the need for any of the other parties anyways."

My contention is that no such party has ever existed in the history of mankind and if it did it would soon be corrupted by its absolute power.

My view as a libertarian/limited government type is that it is best to keep balanced competitive tension between all of the interest in the country. That way the only things that pass will be measures where there is a broad consensus.

Jack writes:

SydB writes:
Um, like maybe someone should learn to read wikipedia (or any other source on US government). "The Budget of the United States Government is the President's proposal to the U.S. Congress which recommends funding levels for the next fiscal year, beginning October 1."

Sure... the President "submits" a budget, but Article I, Section 8 of the constitution empowers Congress to "pay the Debts and provide for the common Defense and general Welfare of the United States." We don't remember/ count what any president (budgetarily) asked for... we only count what Congress (then) either approved, dismissed or added to in the form of a bill(s).

The president's "budget" is a simply proposal & the start of a long process; from the Budget committee, the various committee chairmen (12+ appropriation bills), reconciliation, nevermind the special interests & tons of Pork, et al...

Reagan (fiscally/ budgetarily) wanted to totally get rid of huge slunks of the federal government (depts of education, etc), but he couldn't do squat... because congress (really) controlled the process. Historically he's "credited with" that "budget", but it's hardly what he wanted.

The you had all the (budget) machinations between Clinton & Gingrich. Those final bills were not (fully) Clinton's original "budget" proposal, even though he get's "credit" in the popular vernacular.

So I'll contend that any spending ("budget") is more in line with congressional power (Congress) than the president (pre Czar-era anyway, LOL). It's simply easier for the public to LABEL any administration (spending/ budget/ laws) with that President's name rather than whatever varied group of weasels (Congress) happens to be in charge there. Thus we routinely "credit" presidents for all sorts of things that happened on their watch that they had little to do with, or wanted. It's more popular semantics than accuracy IMO.

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