Indefensible Non-Defense Spending
Where are the 1994 Republicans?


Veronique de Rugy

In 1994, the Republicans gained control of Congress in part because they promised to reduce wasteful government spending and eliminate the deficit. To their credit, the GOP partially upheld its commitment to fiscal responsibility by modestly slowing down the growth rate of spending. In 1996, even with Bill Clinton in the White House, the GOP even managed to cut spending.

This led many people to hope that much-needed spending reductions would become more prevalent if Republicans also controlled the White House. Think again. Since 2001, with Republicans in the White House and in control of both houses of Congress, we have seen the opposite.

Total federal outlays will rise 29 percent between fiscal years 2001 and 2005, and real discretionary spending increases in fiscal years 2002, 2003, and 2004 are three of the five biggest annual increases in the last forty years. As Lord Acton said, “Power tends to corrupt, and absolute power corrupts absolutely.”

During the Clinton years, Republicans brought quite a reforming spirit to Washington after the landmark 1994 congressional elections. They wanted to abolish the Departments of Commerce, Education, and Energy. They were committed to scale down the size of the federal government because, as Sen. Sam Brownback (R., Kan.) noted, “Not only has the government gone beyond its appropriate role but it has failed in its mission. It is time to pull the plug on the experiment.” And, in fact, in 1996, the Republicans managed to cut total discretionary spending by $12 billion.

But this reforming spirit began to wane. Between fiscal years 1997 and 2001, with Clinton in the White House and Republicans in control of Congress, discretionary spending increased systematically. President Clinton requested more spending and Republicans were happy to oblige. Indeed, after going through the hands of the GOP Congress, actual spending ended up on average $10 billion higher than the amount requested, largely due to higher defense outlays.

The one noticeable exception was that during that same period, actual non-defense spending was slightly lower than what the president requested. So, even though non-defense spending continued to grow, it grew at a slower rate than what President Clinton requested. Of course, one can say that Clinton had no incentive to propose reasonable budgets, but the GOP Congress decided not to indulge in even more non-defense spending.

Unfortunately, the reforming spirit has all but disappeared. Today, Republicans control both ends of Pennsylvania Avenue, and each year since 2001, the president has proposed large discretionary-spending increases, and actual spending approved by Congress has been even higher than the big budgets proposed — on average, $65 billion higher. Some observers think that increases in defense spending to fight terrorism and the war in Iraq explain the increases. They’re wrong.

Between fiscal years 2002 and 2004, President Bush made no attempt to control non-defense spending. In each of these last three years, the president’s budgets have requested, on average, $20 billion in increased domestic spending compared with the previous year.

But this time the Republican Congress did not resist the bipartisan temptation to spend our money on pork-barrel projects and decided to spend even more money than the president requested. As a result, actual government non-defense spending over that period will have increased at least $114 billion. The recent omnibus bill is the latest example of the spending binge.

Since 2001, the Republican performance in controlling non-defense spending has been a complete failure throughout the budget. In fiscal year 2002, the budget ended up $50 billion more than the one requested, and $30 billion more in fiscal year 2003 than originally planned. But this seems relatively minor compared to the underestimated $90 billion that Congress allocated on top of the amount proposed by the president for fiscal year 2004. Of course, some of that extra money was requested by the president himself for more operations in Iraq and Afghanistan. But Congress failed to ask for equivalent cuts in the domestic budget to offset that additional spending.

As was the case in the Reagan years, the culture of spending in Washington has prevailed over the Republican promises to cut the budget and become fiscally responsible. In fact, it is now difficult to find any commitment to smaller government. Both parties have joined hands in the big spending orgy. As Dick Armey used to say, “Three groups spend other people’s money: children, thieves, politicians. All three need supervision.”

– Veronique de Rugy is a fiscal policy analyst at the Cato Institute.