Big government gets bigger

BIG GOVERNMENT SERIES: First of three parts

George W. Bush rode into Washington almost eight years ago astride the horse of smaller government. He will leave it this winter having overseen the biggest federal budget expansion since Franklin Delano Roosevelt seven decades ago.

Not since World War II, when the nation mobilized to fight a global war against fascism and recover from the Great Depression, has government spending played as large a role in the economy as it does today.

This time, it is a rapid mobilization against another global enemy — Islamist terrorism — that lies behind much of the growth. But rising spending on discretionary domestic programs has also played its part.

“We have now presided over the largest increase in the size of government since the Great Society,” said Sen. John McCain, the Republican candidate vying to replace Mr. Bush in the White House, during the first presidential debate.

That, in fact, was an understatement. No president since FDR — who offered a New Deal to pull the nation out of the Great Depression and then fought World War II — has presided over as rapid a growth in government when measured as a percentage of the total economy.

And now comes the Next Deal — the rapid-fire series of programs announced in recent weeks to deal with a global financial crisis that few Americans even understand. It has begun with a decision to use $700 billion in taxpayer money to buy up financial assets and take an ownership stake in the nation’s largest banks and could be followed by a stimulus program of up to $300 billion driven by congressional Democrats.

As a result, Mr. Bush already is the first president in history to implement budgets that crossed the $2 trillion a year and $3 trillion a year marks. His final budget, which comes to an end Sept. 30, conceivably could near $4 trillion, depending on the final tab for the financial rescue.

Mr. Bush campaigned in 2000 on a pledge to reduce the size of government, continuing a trend that had been under way since the end of the Cold War. But since terrorists attacked the World Trade Center and Pentagon on Sept. 11, 2001, he has done what he thought was necessary to keep the country safe. That commitment became a centerpiece of his 2004 convention speech: “Whatever it takes.”

The White House does not contest the numbers showing near-record growth in the size of government on its watch, but says it has no regrets about the president’s decision to eschew a limited government agenda in favor of homeland security and defense spending.

“What we have presided over is the security of the nation — the creation of the Homeland Security Department and the fighting of two wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. We don’t apologize for the spending needed to protect Americans,” White House deputy press secretary Tony Fratto said.

“If somebody wants to be critical of those efforts, go for it. Have fun. It’s a silly point to make,” Mr. Fratto said. “America would not be better off had this president not decided to greatly expand the protection of the homeland and to take the fight to the enemies in Iraq and Afghanistan. Period.”

There has been no repeat of a Sept. 11-style attack on U.S. soil, a fact that may turn out to be one of this president’s enduring legacies.

But an examination of numerous government reports over the past few years shows the administration has had difficulties in stewarding the taxpayer money spent on the mission — a total of more than $5 trillion on wars abroad and anti-terrorism efforts at home since 2002.

Of that, hundreds of billions was misspent, in large part due to a broken contracting system, according to congressional oversight reports.

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