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Thursday, September 20, 2018
HomePolicyTrump=Bush=Nixon: Republicans Are Big Spenders, Worse than Democrats

Trump=Bush=Nixon: Republicans Are Big Spenders, Worse than Democrats

U.S. President Donald Trump speaks to attendees as he departs his infrastructure initiative meeting at the White House in Washington, U.S., February 12, 2018. (Photo: Reuters)
U.S. President Donald Trump speaks to attendees as he departs his infrastructure initiative meeting at the White House in Washington, U.S., February 12, 2018. (Photo: Reuters)

U.S. President Donald Trump speaks to attendees as he departs his infrastructure initiative meeting at the White House in Washington, U.S., February 12, 2018. (Photo: Reuters)

I’ve received several emails and Facebook messages asking me why I haven’t written about Trump’s recently unveiled budget proposal for the 2019 fiscal year.

My answer is that I don’t want to waste my time.

Let me explain what I mean. I wrote during the 2016 campaign that Trump was a big-government Republican.

But when he got elected and appointed some good people to fiscal positions, I decided to partially suppress my concerns. After all, maybe I was wrong.

So I wrote last year about his budget and praised specific provisions dealing with government-funded mediafood stampsgovernment-funded artforeign aidOECD subsidiescommunity development block grants, and Medicaid).

And I even outlined the strategy that was necessary to achieve success, at least with regards to so-called discretionary spending. But I included a very important postscript as part of that column.

P.S. I’m not convinced that Trump actually wants smaller government, but I hope I’m wrong. This upcoming battle will be very revealing about where he really stands.

Well, that battle occurred and the result was a disaster for taxpayers. The budget caps were busted again, with the net effect being even worse than the big-spending agreements back in 2013 and 2015.

But it’s not that the Trump Administration lost. They never even tried. The folks I know on Capitol Hill said the White House didn’t lift a finger to urge spending restraint, much less fight to limit budgetary growth. Never.

And the painful experience of the profligate Bush years taught me that most Republican Senators and Representatives will partake in a spending spree when they sense the White House is soft on the issue. The common excuse I get from them is that “the floodgates have opened, I can’t do anything to stop it, so I may as well get a chunk for my voters”.

What’s extra depressing is that Trump’s fiscal incontinence is actually par for the course for Republican presidents, at least in recent decades.

I recently crunched the numbers for every president since the 1960s who served at least one full term, and I measured the average annual growth of government spending (adjusted for inflation) for the years they held power.

Moreover, I sliced and diced the numbers in several ways. I wanted readers to understand what happened to total spending (the combined growth of defense and domestic outlays), as well as what happened to domestic spending.

And the bottom line is that Republicans generally do worse than Democrats. Not just on total spending. They’re even more profligate on domestic spending!

The only exceptions to this pattern are Reagan (the only good Republican) and LBJ (the only really awful Democrat).

By the way, I’m not claiming that Clinton, Carter, or Obama were fiscal conservatives or that they believed in small government. I’m simply pointing out government grew slower when they were in office, at least compared to the growth of government under NixonBush I, or Bush 2. The numbers don’t lie.

I suspect these counter-intuitive results are because of two factors.

  1. Presidents try to deflect and/or preempt criticism, so that leads Democrats to be cautious about spending money (they don’t want to be called “big spenders”) and it leads Republicans to squander a lot of cash (they don’t want to be called “heartless” or “mean”).
  2. The party controlling the White House often loses seats in mid-term elections and that subsequently limits the ability of presidents to push an agenda that is opposed by the other party, or even leads them to acquiesce to initiatives pushed by the other party.

Needless to say, this is rather depressing for those of us who want to limit the size and scope of government. It’s quite likely that Trump will spend the next three years or seven years instigating and/or accepting bigger government. And then we’ll probably have a Democrat in the White House who will – at least for the first two years – push for even more government.

But I get more upset when Republicans are big spenders because they should know better. Most Democrats actually believe it’s a good idea to make America more like Greece. Republicans, by contrast, make us more like Greece because they put short-term politics ahead of the national interest.

Written by
Contributing Economist

Daniel J. Mitchell is a Senior Fellow at the Cato Institute, and a top expert on tax reform and supply-side tax policy. Mitchell’s articles can be found in such publications as the Wall Street Journal, the New York Times, Investor’s Business Daily, and the Washington Times. He is the author of "The Flat Tax: Freedom, Fairness, Jobs, and Growth," and co-author of "Global Tax Revolution: The Rise of Tax Competition and the Battle to Defend It."

Latest comments

  • They spend big to buy congressional votes for policies that really matters to them.

    Dems can cut w… https://t.co/Imta69SgTX

  • I agree that we definitely had smaller government but punishing the military because of politicians… https://t.co/5vLxqmtQQi

  • Barry added 10 Trillion to the National Debt and you say Trump spends a lot?! Get a medical evaluation.