Are Republicans bigger spenders than Democrats?

Overspending isn't a problem exclusive to one political party or another. All you need do is observe the differences between the restraint witnessed under the Reagan and Clinton administrations and the excess of those of Bush and Obama to see that the public must keep close watch the government's purse strings regardless of who's residing at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue. However, the political aisle may play a distinguish role in spending when it comes to Capitol Hill.

Let's begin by examining this phenomenon at the executive level. Reflecting back on the last 12 years under Presidents Bush and Obama, pundits are squabbling over which of these big spenders was the larger of the two.

Washington Post economic columnist Ezra Klein has taken up the mantle of Kevin Drum's claim at Mother Jones that "total government spending didn't go up much during the Clinton era, and it's actually declined during under President Obama." Call me a dunderhead, but after examining those charts and doing my own analysis, I don't see how anyone can avoid the obvious conclusion that Obama's a huge spender.

I'll start by offering an improved version of Ezra's second chart that focuses on federal spending (since that, after all, is what the president controls) and adjusts for both inflation and population growth.

This chart does support the Drum/Klein claim that government spending increased more under George W. Bush than under Bill Clinton. Especially in light of the recession-caused spike in spending in the last quarter of the Bush administration (people often forget that TARP was signed into law by President Bush in October 2008), it is more meaningful to compare annual average spending amounts across administrations rather than the dollar increase from the start to the finish. Compared to the Clinton era, inflation-adjusted average federal spending per capita rose only $700 under the Bush administration. In contrast, this average rose by an additional nearly $1,900 per person under President Obama.

Admittedly, the annualized level of spending per quarter has declined since its peak years in 2009-2010, but even Klein concedes that "if Obama had his way, we would've spent even more."[1] But it's worth focusing on a dimension entirely ignored by both Drum and Klein, which is the role of Republicans in Congress in explaining these spending trends.

If we dice up these same data a different way, we can easily see that regardless of administration, expenditures tended to be lower when Republicans controlled all or part of Congress than when the Democrats were in charge.[2] 

This structuring of the data still shows a secular rise in the amount of inflation-adjusted per capita federal spending. But in the Clinton administration, the average level of such spending was 1.7 percent higher when Democrats controlled Congress than after the Republican takeover in 1994. This pattern repeated with a vengeance under the Bush administration: average annual spending was 7.9 percent higher during the last two years that Democrats controlled Congress compared to the six preceding years in which Republicans had voting majorities in both chambers.[3] Under President Obama, average spending in his first two years was 3.3 percent higher than when Republicans took over the House following the election sweep of 2010.

Thus, since Mr. Klein has been willing to concede that Obama would have spent more had Congress given the freedom to do so, I would hope he would similarly concede that with a more cooperative Congress, President Bush would have spent less. The point is that the "natural" spending proclivity of President Bush has been biased upwards by the Democrats in Congress he faced, while that of President Obama has been biased downwards by the Republican House, thereby distorting comparisons between the two presidents in Mr. Obama's favor.

It's not really worth rehashing the past to figure out how much Obama spending can be attributed to the recession and/or how much of his first-year spending "really" was the responsibility of George W. Bush. The reality is that President Obama inherited a high level of federal spending that was without historical precedent. And even though we can likewise quibble about how much of the subsequent drop in spending can be credited to President Obama as opposed to a Republican House, the fact is that absent pushback from Congress, the President wants to increase inflation-adjusted federal spending by at least $1,500 per person between 2012 and 2017![4] 

So let's review the bidding:

  • George W. Bush, pushed in part by a Congress controlled by Democrats, allowed federal spending to increase $700 per person over Clinton-era levels.
  • Even if we completely ignore the first two years of the Obama administration (remember the recession officially ended in June 2009), average spending has risen more than $2,100 per person above the levels of Bush's last two years.
  • Yet, despite having achieved the highest levels of federal spending in history (in spite of a massive reduction in our military commitments/spending in Iraq/Afghanistan), President Obama plans, by 2017, to increase spending by another $1,500 per person.
  • In short, by the time Obama has completed his first six years in office, he will have increased inflation-adjusted federal spending by five times as much as President Bush increased spending relative to President Clinton. (Just imagine how much worse things might be had Democrats retained full control over Congress after 2010.)

Ezra, if this doesn't make Obama a huge spender, how much more evidence do you need? (Seriously.) And could you please explain whatever happened to the guy who in 2009 pledged: "I refuse to leave our children with a debt that they cannot repay, and that means taking responsibility right now, in this administration, for getting our spending under control"?

 Footnotes

[1] Klein's counter is that if Obama had had his way, there would have been more deficit reduction, since Obama was far more willing than Congress was to raise taxes to close the gap. But this line of argument simply drives home the point that Obama is comfortable with a far higher level of spending (and attendant taxes) than either of his predecessors were: in short, he is a huge spender!

[2] Democrats controlled both the House and Senate from 1993-1994 and 2007-2008; they controlled the Senate only from 2011-2012.

[3] Strictly speaking "the Democratic Party controlled the 107th Congress from January 3 to January 20, 2001 (50/50 tie with Vice President Gore as the deciding vote) and from May 24, 2001 to January 3, 2003 (after Senator Jim Jeffords left the Republican Party to become an Independent and caucus with the Democrats)." For simplicity, the chart labels the period 2001-2006 as a Republican-controlled Congress even though technically Democrats controlled the Senate for 20 of the 60 months during this period. This does not undercut my central point that so long as Republicans control at least one chamber in Congress, federal spending tends to be lower.

[4] See USgovernmentspending.com. The projections through 2017 are based on President Obama's FY2013 budget, but the methodology for converting these into inflation-adjusted per capita estimates is not detailed. Thus, I cannot vouch for the accuracy of the figures reported at this site, but presume they have been assembled in a responsible way. My own calculations are here.

 

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Christopher J.
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