Will a Democratic Congress End the Federal Spending Spree?

November 10, 2006 8:35PM

By Stephen Slivinski Republicans counting their losses following last Tuesday’s election learned a harsh truth: Many fiscal conservatives no longer see Democrats as the biggest impediment to tackling Big Government. Instead, they see GOP leaders in Washington as the problem. When Republicans won control of both Congress and the White House in 2000, conservatives believed that smaller government—a Republican promise since Ronald Reagan’s presidency—was just around the corner. Instead, George W. Bush and the congressional GOP leadership expanded government faster than at any time since the 1960s. The fiscal damage of the Bush years proved more than many conservatives could stomach as they headed for the ballot box. Even after adjusting the total growth in the federal budget by length of time in office and inflation, Bush is the biggest-spending president since Lyndon Johnson. This spending binge isn’t driven by the war on terror or the war in Iraq—only 15 percent of the entire Pentagon budget over the past five years was devoted to funding these operations. When Bill Clinton left the White House, government swallowed 18.5 percent of America’s Gross Domestic Product. Federal spending ballooned almost immediately after Bush’s inaugural parade. By 2006, Bush and a Republican Congress managed to expand government spending to more than 20 percent of GDP. With many fiscal conservatives disenchanted by big-spending Republicans, it’s worth pondering whether the loss of Congress by the GOP is a bad thing for supporters of limited government. After all, government grows slower when a political party different than the president’s controls at least one house of Congress—a condition known to political scientists as “divided government,” or popularly known as “gridlock.” Since 1965, government has grown slower in periods of divided government than in periods of united government. On average, federal spending tends to increase nearly twice as quickly under single-party control than when government is gridlocked. Gridlock is a consequence of the one constant in Washington: partisanship. When Republicans are the beleaguered minority, they are in their element. Big Government is the clear enemy. But once they find themselves in control of it all, they don’t rein each other in. Instead, they egg each other on. We can see this by comparing how a GOP Congress treated the proposed non-defense budgets of Clinton and Bush. During the years of divided government under Clinton, gridlock ensued. The Republican Congress managed to cut Clinton’s domestic spending requests by an average of $9 billion each year between fiscal 1996 and 2001. Contrast that with the budget outcomes under President Bush—specifically the years in which Republicans held both houses of Congress. Between fiscal years 2003 and 2006, Congress passed, and Bush refused to veto, non-defense budgets that were an average of $16 billion more than the president proposed each year. The rules of partisanship imply that a Big Government scheme proposed by a Republican president is more likely to be accepted by a Republican Congress than if it were proposed by a Democrat. That’s exactly what happened with the passage of Medicare drug benefit, which would likely not have passed had it been proposed by, say, President Al Gore or President Hillary Clinton. Based on the record, the question for conservatives is whether their cause might be better off now that congressional Republicans have to spend some time in the political wilderness.