Published on Thursday, December 4, 2003 by Knight-Ridder
Federal Spending Soars Under Bush's Watch
by Ron Hutcheson
WASHINGTON - President Bush came to office saying he was a fiscal conservative, but federal spending has skyrocketed on his watch. And it's not just the Pentagon that's getting more federal dollars.
In the meantime, the $236 billion federal surplus that Bush inherited in January 2001 has turned into a $400 billion-plus deficit.
On Monday, Bush will usher in another big new spending program by signing Medicare legislation that creates a prescription-drug benefit for senior citizens at an estimated cost of $400 billion over the next 10 years.
"Spending is up across the board," said Brian Riedl, a budget expert at the Heritage Foundation, a conservative research center. "In the past year and a half, we've had the biggest education bill in history, we've had the biggest farm bill in history and now we're about to have the biggest expansion of the Great Society."
Robert Bixby, the executive director of the Concord Coalition, a bipartisan budget watchdog group, said Bush had joined with the Republican-led Congress in "a huge explosion of spending."
"The Bush administration hasn't done anything to control spending," Bixby said. "He hasn't vetoed a single (spending) bill as he contributes to the expansion of entitlement programs."
Administration officials contend that the criticism - most of which comes from Bush's fellow conservatives - is unfair. Some of the biggest spending increases, at least in percentage terms, have come in programs related to the war on terrorism and the war in Iraq, such as the controversial $87 billion measure that Congress approved this fall.
Spending on homeland security, an issue that drew little attention before the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, increased by 85 percent last year with the creation of the Homeland Security Department. Even so, it cost only $41 billion in a federal budget of $2.1 trillion - about 2 percent of federal spending.
Other increases occurred in entitlement programs, such as Social Security and Medicare, whose costs grow automatically as people entitled to their services submit claims, without specific spending decisions by Bush or Congress.
Bush aides say the annual growth rate for discretionary spending on programs other than defense is trending downward after a sharp spike. After a 15 percent increase in President Clinton's final budget, nondefense discretionary spending grew by just 6 percent in fiscal 2002 and by 5 percent in fiscal 2003, which ended Sept. 30.
Even so, Bush's record is a big disappointment to conservatives, who share his stated goal of a leaner federal government.
"President Bush has yet to meet a spending bill he doesn't like," The Wall Street Journal complained in a recent editorial denouncing what it called "the GOP's spending spree."
An analysis by the libertarian research center the Cato Institute branded Bush "the Mother of All Big Spenders" and compared him unfavorably to Clinton. By Cato's accounting, after adjusting for inflation, nondefense spending decreased by 0.7 percent during Clinton's first three years in office, while it increased nearly 21 percent during the comparable period under Bush.
The Heritage Foundation, usually a White House ally, found that 55 percent of the spending increases since Bush took office had nothing to do with defense or homeland security. The Heritage analysis also concluded that spending has reached $20,000 per household.
In some cases, Bush pushed for spending increases. For example, federal spending on education, a top presidential priority, has increased 65 percent under Bush.
On other issues, Bush accepted spending increases backed by Congress for popular programs. To the dismay of some conservatives, he signed a six-year, $249 billion farm bill last year that abandoned efforts to roll back agriculture subsidies.
This year he fought for passage of an energy bill that included $72.5 billion in spending and $23.5 billion in tax breaks, mainly for big energy corporations. The House of Representatives passed the measure but the Senate put off a final vote until next year.
Many Democrats contend that the problem isn't excessive government spending, it's Bush's tax cuts. As spending was rising, tax reductions reduced Treasury revenues and are responsible for about one-third of this year's deficit, according to the Committee for a Responsible Federal Budget, a bipartisan watchdog group.
Deficit hawks say Bush hasn't matched his spending policies with his tax policies.
"The problem, really, is trying to combine a big-government spending agenda with a little-government tax policy. That's the irresponsible part. If you want big government, pay for it," said Bixby, of the Concord Coalition.
Riedl, the Heritage budget expert, faults the president for failing to push harder for spending restraint.
Yet Bush continues to talk tough on the need for restraint.
"Congress must hold the line on unnecessary spending," he said during a September visit to Kansas City, Mo. "They need to understand that in order to cut the deficits in half, we must have spending discipline in Washington, D.C., and I will insist upon spending discipline."
Copyright 2003 Knight-Ridder