Doug Bandow is a senior fellow at the Cato Institute and a former visiting fellow at the Heritage Foundation. He served as a special assistant to President Ronald Reagan.
Republicans have long claimed to be fiscal tightwads and railed against deficit spending. But this year big-spending George W. Bush and the GOP Congress turned a budget surplus into a $477 billion deficit. There are few programs at which they have not thrown money: massive farm subsidies, an expensive new Medicare drug benefit, thousands of pork-barrel projects, dubious homeland-security grants, expansion of Bill Clinton's AmeriCorps, even new foreign-aid programs. Brian Riedl of the Heritage Foundation reports that in 2003 "government spending exceeded $20,000 per household for the first time since World War II."
Complaints about Republican profligacy have led the White House to promise to mend its ways. But Bush's latest budget combines accounting flim-flam with unenforceable promises. So how do we put Uncle Sam on a sounder fiscal basis?
Democrats obviously are no pikers when it comes to spending. But the biggest impetus for higher spending is partisan uniformity, not partisan identity. Give either party complete control of government, and the Treasury vaults are quickly emptied. Neither Congress nor the President wants to tell the other no. Both are desperate to prove they can "govern"—which means creating new programs and spending more money. But share power between parties, and out of principle or malice they check each other. Even if a President Kerry proposed more spending than would a President Bush, a GOP Congress would appropriate less. That's one reason the Founders believed in the separation of powers.
Consider the record. William Niskanen, former acting chairman of the Council of Economic Advisors, has put together a fascinating analysis of government spending since 1953. Real federal outlays grew fastest, 4.8% annually, in the Kennedy-Johnson years, with Congress under Democratic control. The second-fastest rise, 4.4%, occurred with George W. Bush during Republican rule. The third-biggest spending explosion, 3.7%, was during the Carter administration, a time of Democratic control. In contrast, the greatest fiscal stringency, 0.4%, occurred during the Eisenhower years. The second-best period of fiscal restraint, 0.9%, was in the Clinton era. Next came the Nixon-Ford years, at 2.5%, and Ronald Reagan's presidency, at 3.3%. All were years of shared partisan control.
Bush officials argue that it is unfair to count military spending, but Dwight Eisenhower, Lyndon Johnson, and Ronald Reagan also faced international challenges that impeded their domestic plans. Moreover, if you do strip out military spending and consider only the domestic record, GOP chief executives emerge in an even worse light. In terms of real domestic discretionary outlays, which are most easily controlled, the biggest spender in the past 40 years is George W. Bush, with expenditure racing ahead 8.2% annually, according to Stephen Moore of the Club for Growth. No. 2 on the list is Gerald Ford, at 8%. No. 3 is Richard Nixon. At least the latter two, in contrast to Bush, faced hostile Congresses.
Given the generally woeful record of Republican Presidents, the best combination may be a Democratic chief executive and Republican legislature. It may also be the only combination that's feasible, since in 2004 at least, it will be difficult to overturn Republican congressional control: Redistricting has encouraged electoral stasis in the House, while far more Democrats face reelection in the Senate. Thus, the only way we can realistically keep Congress and the President in separate political hands is to vote for John Kerry in November.
Returning to divided government would yield another benefit as well: Greater opportunity for reform, whether of the budget process, tort liability, Medicare, Social Security, taxes, or almost anything else. Niskanen has observed that the prospects for change "will be dependent on more bipartisan support than now seems likely in a united Republican government." He points out that tax reform occurred in 1986, and agriculture, telecommunications, and welfare reform a decade later, all under divided government.
The deficit can be cut in half if Congress "is willing to make tough choices," says President Bush. But GOP legislators are likely to make tough choices only if he is replaced by a Democrat. History teaches us that divided government equals fiscal probity, so vote Democratic for President if you want responsible budgeting in Washington.
This article originally appeared in Fortune on April 20, 2004.
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