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Commentary | JOHN BALZAR

Debunking the Big-Spender Myth

January 11, 2002|John Balzar

Let's look back a quarter-century at the prevailing cliche of domestic politics: Democrats are the irresponsible spenders in Washington; Republicans are the conscientious spenders.

Leading up to the inauguration of George W. Bush a year ago, we lived through the tenure of two Democratic presidents and two Republican presidents. Of the Democrats, Jimmy Carter served one term and Bill Clinton two. Of the Republicans, Ronald Reagan served two terms, the senior George Bush one.

So, Republicans held office 12 years and Democrats 12.

What does history tell us? This: Year by year, Republican presidents on the average spent almost 22% more than the government brought in. Democratic presidents averaged annual deficits of 7%.

Said differently, Republican presidents swam in red ink three times as deep as Democratic presidents for most of a generation.

Or, we can look at the numbers president by president: Clinton's spending averaged a deficit of 4.4%. Carter, 13.23%. Bush the senior, 21.75%. Reagan, 21.87%.

Yes, yes, Congress passes the appropriations bills, and the Democrats have dominated Congress until recently. But the president drafts the budget, sets the agenda, chooses where to fight and where to compromise, wields the veto, commands the bully pulpit and spends the money. The trend line is too long, the numbers too decisive to be disregarded.

Recent history is even more instructive. Clinton, who managed to be at once polarizing and bipartisan, began with a GOP-level 22% deficit. That went down every year of his presidency. After five years, the budget went into surplus for the first time since 1969, and stayed in the black. His final budget carried a 12% surplus.

His successor, in office only a year and a strong ideological champion of limited government, now acknowledges he will return America to deficit, the result of tax cuts, recession, general spending and Sept. 11 costs.

I say we retire the cliche and find a new one. A quarter-century is long enough to be fooling ourselves.

As we begin this election year, there are other commonplace cliches that no longer guide us wisely in our political debate. Such as, Democrats give us big government and Republicans rein it in.

Under Carter, federal spending amounted to about 21% of the country's gross domestic product. That number inched up under Reagan and the elder Bush to 22%. It declined under Clinton to 20%. When Clinton left office, the federal government accounted for a smaller part of the domestic economy than at any time since the 1960s.

Between 1990, during the first Bush presidency, and 1999, the end of Clinton's, the number of civilians employed by the federal government fell almost 8%. If you exclude growth in the number of postal workers during that period, the decrease in federal civilian employment was an even more dramatic 18%.

I thank the Census Bureau's Statistical Abstract, Chapter 10, and the U.S. Treasury Department for these numbers.

Some might say that Reagan actually started the decline in the size and scope of government by popularizing the idea. There's much truth here. It's also true that a Democratic president brought it to realization, and not reluctantly either.

Thus, Reagan denounced the welfare system. Clinton signed the bill that fundamentally altered it. Reagan called for smaller government, Clinton delivered.

Yes, sharp differences exist today between the two parties on government and spending. But the differences, it must be noted, are not so much about dollar totals. A divided Congress has not bucked the president very hard on the overall amount of spending, at least not yet.

Instead, the battle lines have formed: Who should receive what in the name of economic stimulus? How much of this spending should we pay for now with taxes and how much should we defer in the form of debt? It is a worthwhile debate, an important one. Its implications affect millions of Americans in the short run, and no doubt all of us over time. This fight goes directly to the philosophy of fairness and the extent to which government should be an arbiter of fairness. It raises the question of today versus tomorrow in terms of governance. It also is a fight over business and consumer psychology: how government can best encourage an economy that will provide for its citizens.

Almost none of this debate has do with worn-out campaign cliches--remnants of the past--no matter how glibly they roll off the tongue.

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