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The Mother of All Big Spenders
Bush spends like Carter and panders like Clinton.


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Veronique de Rugy

The Bush administration’s newly released budget projections reveal an anticipated budget deficit of $455 billion for the current fiscal year, up another $151 billion since February. Supporters and critics of the administration are tripping over themselves to blame the deficit on tax cuts, the war, and a slow economy. But the fact is we have mounting deficits because George W. Bush is the most gratuitous big spender to occupy the White House since Jimmy Carter. One could say that he has become the “Mother of All Big Spenders.”

The new estimates show that, under Bush, total outlays will have risen $408 billion in just three years to $2.272 trillion: an enormous increase in federal spending of 22 percent. Administration officials privately admit that spending is too high. Yet they argue that deficits are appropriate in times of war and recession. So, is it true that the war on terrorism has resulted in an increase in defense spending? Yes. And, is it also true that a slow economy has meant a decreased stream of tax revenues to pay for government? Yes again.

But the real truth is that national defense is far from being responsible for all of the spending increases. According to the new numbers, defense spending will have risen by about 34 percent since Bush came into office. But, at the same time, non-defense discretionary spending will have skyrocketed by almost 28 percent. Government agencies that Republicans were calling to be abolished less than ten years ago, such as education and labor, have enjoyed jaw-dropping spending increases under Bush of 70 percent and 65 percent respectively.

Now, most rational people would cut back on their spending if they knew their income was going to be reduced in the near future. Any smart company would look to cut costs should the business climate take a turn for the worse. But the administration has been free-spending into the face of a recessionary economy from day one without making any serious attempt to reduce costs.

The White House spinmeisters insist that we keep the size of the deficit “in perspective.” Sure it’s appropriate that the budget deficit should be measured against the relative size of the economy. Today, the projected budget deficit represents 4.2 percent of the nation’s GDP. Thus the folks in the Bush administration pat themselves on the back while they remind us that in the 1980s the economy handled deficits of 6 percent. So what? Apparently this administration seems to think that achieving low standards instead of the lowest is supposed to be comforting.

That the nation’s budgetary situation continues to deteriorate is because the administration’s fiscal policy has been decidedly more about politics than policy. Even the tax cuts, which happened to be good policy, were still political in nature considering their appeal to the Republican’s conservative base. At the same time, the politicos running the Bush reelection machine have consistently tried to placate or silence the liberals and special interests by throwing money at their every whim and desire. In mathematical terms, the administration calculates that satiated conservatives plus silenced liberals equals reelection.

How else can one explain the administration publishing a glossy report criticizing farm programs and then proceeding to sign a farm bill that expands those same programs? How else can one explain the administration acknowledging that entitlements are going to bankrupt the nation if left unreformed yet pushing the largest historical expansion in Medicare one year before the election? Such blatant political maneuvering can only be described as Clintonian.

But perhaps we are being unfair to former President Clinton. After all, in inflation-adjusted terms, Clinton had overseen a total spending increase of only 3.5 percent at the same point in his administration. More importantly, after his first three years in office, non-defense discretionary spending actually went down by 0.7 percent. This is contrasted by Bush’s three-year total spending increase of 15.6 percent and a 20.8 percent explosion in non-defense discretionary spending.

Sadly, the Bush administration has consistently sacrificed sound policy to the god of political expediency. From farm subsidies to Medicare expansion, purchasing reelection votes has consistently trumped principle. In fact, what we have now is a president who spends like Carter and panders like Clinton. Our only hope is that the exploding deficit will finally cause the administration to get serious about controlling spending.

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



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