- The Washington Times - Sunday, June 13, 2004

I moved to the United States from France in part because of my admiration for former President Reagan. I wanted to live in a country that would elect someone with a strong commitment to limited government and individual liberty. Having endured European stagnation, I also wanted to benefit from the strong economy created by lower tax rates.

After five years in the United States, I now realize that there was more to Mr. Reagan’s legacy than tax cuts. There is also his courageous and largely unappreciated willingness to fight for reductions in domestic spending.

It is not an exaggeration to say that Mr. Reagan sought — and won — more spending cuts than any other modern president. Mr. Reagan boosted defense outlays by 26.1 percent during his first term, but he also cut inflation-adjusted non-defense outlays by 9.7 percent — the only president to achieve this goal. During their first terms, President Lyndon Johnson boosted non-defense spending by 34.2 percent, President George W. Bush increased it by 25.3 percent, President Nixon by 22.5 percent and President George H.W. Bush by 13.9 percent. Bill Clinton is the only one close to Mr. Reagan, with a modest 0.7 percent increase in non-defense spending during his first term in office.

In his 1980 election campaign, Mr. Reagan discussed eliminating the Department of Education and the Department of Energy. In his State of the Union address in January 1982, he said, “The budget plan I submit to you on February 8 will realize major savings by dismantling the Departments of Energy and Education.” Sadly, Mr. Reagan was not able to accomplish that goal because of solid opposition by the Democratic House and among members of his own party. Yet, his accomplishment needs to be underlined.

Mr. Reagan understood economics. He knew an unjustified economic subsidy when he saw one. And he believed that the federal government had usurped private, state and local responsibilities. As a consequence, he fought to scale back programs such as middle-income student grant and loan aid. During his first term in office, Mr. Reagan cut the real budget of the Department of Education by 19 percent. By contrast, Mr. Nixon increased it by 19.1 percent, Bush 41 by 22.2 percent and President Carter by 38.5 percent. Our current president increased it by a whopping 67.6 percent.

Getting rid of the Commerce Department was dear to Mr. Reagan’s heart. He knew that apart from the Census Bureau, the Commerce Department was full of programs that should be abolished — activities that were not legitimate functions of the federal government. Export subsidies, for instance, rest on the illusion that a nation can raise its gross national product by giving away its goods for less than what it costs to make them. In reality, Export-Import Bank subsidies are damaging and are just another giveaway to big corporations. Mr. Reagan wanted to put an end to that. He managed to cut the budget of the department by 29 percent in real term during his first term and by 3 percent during his second one. Mr. Clinton, by contrast, increased the department’s budget by 24 percent in his first term and then by 96.7 percent in his second term.

Mr. Reagan also went after farm subsidies. His March 10, 1982, budget revisions cancelled nearly every single farm-subsidy program. Most of his cuts never materialized, but he managed to reduce the real budget of the Department of Agriculture by 24 percent during his second term in office. The only president who came close to Mr. Reagan’s agriculture cuts was Mr. Clinton, who presided over a reduction of the department budget by 23 percent in real terms during his first term in office.

Mr. Reagan is also the only president who ever cut the budget of the Department of Transportation (DOT). The DOT budget was reduced by 11 percent during his first term and 7.5 percent during his second term. He is also the only one to have ever cut the budget of the Department of Housing and Urban Development — by 40 percent during his second term. To sum up, Mr. Reagan cut the budget of 8 agencies out of 15 during his first term in office and of 10 agencies out of 15 during his second term. By contrast, the current president has yet to cut the budget of any of the agencies.

Finally, the Reagan revolution had intended to tackle a sweeping reform of the big entitlement programs. Even though he could never implement the controversial cuts he originally proposed, Mr. Reagan contained the real total growth rate of mandatory programs, holding it to 5 percent during his second term — quite an accomplishment compared to other presidents.

To achieve his dream of a limited and constitutional government, Mr. Reagan understood that government should be smaller. This had very little to do with balancing the budget and a lot to do with expanding freedom. He used his veto pen and the bully pulpit. As a result of his leadership, the burden of government in America is much smaller than it otherwise would have been. He deserves credit for this accomplishment, just as he deserves credit for lower tax rates.

Veronique de Rugy is a visiting scholar at the American Enterprise Institute and an adjunct scholar at the Cato Institute.

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