Once upon a time, the Republican Party frequently made the case for smaller government and occasionally backed up the rhetoric with action. Republicans won a historic electoral victory in 1994 partly by trumpeting their opposition to the big-spending congressional leadership and offering the alternative of balancing the budget by cutting spending.
The first budget proposed by the GOP majority in 1995 eliminated three Cabinet agencies and more than 200 federal programs. Ten years later, the Republicans in Congress and the White House have become defenders of big government. They have presided over the largest increase in spending since the Great Society. As a reporter for the Los Angeles Times put it: “No longer are Republicans arguing with Democrats about whether government should be big or small. Instead they are at odds over what kind of big government the U.S. should have.”
A Washington Post headline read: “Blueprint Calls for Bigger, More Powerful Government.” Former speaker of the House Newt Gingrich laments what has happened in the past 10 years: “Republicans have lost their way,” he says.
Most of that reversal occurred during the first term of President George W. Bush. Government spending has grown from US$1.86-trillion to US$2.48-trillion — up 33% since 2001. The total dollar increases in the federal budget have grown dramatically since Bush assumed office. Total growth in the federal budget in his first term equaled US$616.4-billion.
Some of that increased expenditure was a result of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan as well as homeland security measures. But non-defence spending has gone up dramatically as well: Since Bush took office, domestic spending has shot up by 36%.
At the end of the Clinton administration, federal outlays equaled 18.5% of GDP. That was down from 21.4% when Clinton was inaugurated. The strong reversal of the downward trend began when Bush took office.
He and the Republican Congress managed to expand government spending to 20.3% of GDP. The story of the growth of government under GOP control is still being written. However, the actions of Bush and Republican congressional leaders do not reflect a political party that is at all serious about making government smaller.
When discussing how fast the federal government has grown during the presidency of George W. Bush, it is important to put things in historical context. When presidents over the past 40 years are ranked in terms of annualized growth in inflation-adjusted total federal outlays, he is the biggest-spending president since Lyndon B. Johnson.
That ranking is interesting for at least two reasons. First, the calculation includes spending on Medicare, one of the most expensive entitlement programs in U.S. history. Second, Bush has signed into law only four budgets so far, whereas Johnson signed five into law during his presidency. In other words, Bush and a Republican Congress have expanded the federal government almost as fast as did Johnson and a Democratic Congress — and in less time.
Stephen Slivinski is director of budget studies at the Washington-based Cato Institute. His report is available at www.cato.org