“I call on members to make real cuts in nonsecurity spending,” President Bush told his Tuesday press conference. “Congress needs to pay for as much of the hurricane relief as possible by cutting spending.”
Such sentiments are sweet music to libertarians and small-government conservatives — and long overdue. While emergency spending in the wake of Hurricanes Katrina and Rita has added billions to the deficit-riddled federal budget, those outlays are just a drop in the bucket compared to the prestorm spending habits of the president and Congress.
Indeed, when it comes to big-time spending, many think of Democrat Lyndon Baines Johnson — who busted the budget like a Texas tornado. But it’s the current chief executive from the Lone Star State, with plenty of help from the Republican-controlled Congress, who actually set the one-term record for raising discretionary spending.
Discretionary spending comprises most defense spending and other nonentitlement social programs; it’s what president and Congress decide to spend each year through appropriations bills. Because it could be theoretically zeroed out each year, discretionary spending is the best measure of fiscal responsibility in evaluating presidents and Congresses.
In fiscal 1965-68, Lyndon Johnson raised discretionary spending a whopping 33.4 percent (all figures are adjusted for inflation and based on Office of Management and Budget data). He jacked up nondefense discretionary spending 34.2 percent and defense spending — remember Vietnam? — 33.1 percent.
Consider how some of the presidents after him performed.
Richard Nixon cut total discretionary spending by 15.2 percent, mostly by slashing defense spending almost a third. Over two terms, Ronald Reagan increased discretionary spending 15.3 percent, largely due to a 38 percent increase in defense spending. With the Cold War over, George Herbert Walker Bush’s cuts to the defense budget allowed him to reduce total discretionary spending by 3.4 percent — even as he goosed nondefense spending by a robust 13.9 percent. In his first term, Bill Clinton actually reduced total discretionary spending 8 percent; in his second term, he increased it a relatively modest 8.1 percent.
Then there’s George W. Bush. In his first term, he increased total discretionary spending 35.1 percent and that percentage will actually rise: the final figures for fiscal 2005 aren’t in yet, so we have to rely on the July OMB midsession review numbers. The final numbers will be significantly higher, especially since midsession figures do not take into account hundreds of billions in supplemental spending related to Hurricane Katrina and the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.
How has the president spent so much? Defense spending has greatly increased, by 37.2 percent over four years. But the president also increased nondefense discretionary spending by a humongous 37 percent. Even when you subtract homeland security spending, Mr. Bush and Congress boosted nondefense discretionary spending by 23 percent during his first term.
While Mr. Bush’s new calls for cuts are heartening, he may well face his sternest opposition from within his own party. A spokesman for Rep. Don Young, Alaska Republican and chairman of the powerful House Transportation Committee, has called pork-for-relief swap proposals “moronic.” Tom DeLay, Texas Republican, recently declared “victory” over federal budget fat, ludicrously asserting, “After 11 years of Republican majority we’ve pared [the budget] down pretty good.”
While it remains unclear exactly what the budget for fiscal 2006 will look like, this much already is crystal-clear: If the president and his Congress do not immediately and radically cut the massive spending spree of the last four years, the GOP can no longer claim the mantle of fiscal responsibility.
Who could have predicted when he took office that Mr. Bush might end up looking much more like Lyndon Johnson than his own father? Mr. Bush fights an increasingly unpopular war, has added to Johnson’s Great Society legacy by pushing through a new prescription drug program that is the single-largest expansion of Medicare since its inception, and spends like, well, a Texas-born millionaire. If Republicans don’t follow through and cut spending, all that’s left for the transformation to be complete is for Mr. Bush to pick his dog up by the ears.
Veronique de Rugy is a research scholar at the American Enterprise Institute. Nick Gillespie is the editor-in-chief of Reason magazine.