The Source of Bush’s Budget Assertion

Kevin Drum wrote a post about Bush’s statement during the debate that he has restrained spending growth. As Kevin points out, his statement turns up into down and black into white.

However, Bush didn’t pull his figures out of thin air. The exact phrasing of his statement was “Non-homeland, non-defense discretionary spending was raising [sic] at 15 percent a year when I got into office. And today it’s less than 1 percent, because we’re working together to try to bring this deficit under control.” The data supporting his statement is contained in this OMB graph. According to the graph, Bush’s statement was (almost) correct.

What explains the difference between the OMB graph and Kevin Drum’s figures? Part of the answer is the difference between budget authority and budget outlays (spending). As this Washington Post piece describes, the Bush administration has been able to use that difference to their advantage:

[Critics] say [that] Republicans in Washington — anxious about the unhappiness of their conservative supporters — are manipulating the authorizing numbers, making them all but irrelevant. Authorized spending rose 15.3 percent in 2003 in large part because of a $79 billion emergency “supplemental” spending bill passed shortly after the invasion of Iraq, Riedl said. But only half of that money was spent last year, allowing Congress to rein in authorized spending levels this year.

“It was probably unnecessary to go that high in 2003 budget authority,” Riedl said, “but the White House understands that if they threw a lot into the supplemental, they would relieve pressure on their 2004 budget.”

The following table illustrates. The White House and Congress have indeed increased the budget authority for non-defense, non-homeland security (NDNHS) discretionary spending at a decreasing rate. But actual spending (the table only shows discretionary spending) has continued to grow rapidly.

Source: FY 2005 Mid-Session Review of the US Budget, tables 8 and 14.

How is that possible? I don’t know the details of where the extra money is coming from, but whenever spending is greater than outlays it is likely that the money was authorized in earlier years but hadn’t previously been spent. As the table shows, the gap between spending authorized by Congress and the actual spending done by the Bush administration has grown steadily in recent years. Thus while spending has grown far faster than Bush suggested the other night, authorization has indeed grown at a slow rate in recent years. There may well be budgetary implications of this growing authorization-spending gap, but I will leave that as a topic for future research and discussion.

Note that even accounting for this difference between authorization and spending, it remains somewhat unclear where Bush’s budget office came up with the totals for NDNHS authorizations that they use. Tad DeHaven of the Cato Institute wrote a piece about this subject in the National Review. Try as he might, he wasn’t able to replicate the Bush administration’s numbers.

However, it does seem that much of the discrepancy between the well-documented growth in government under the Bush administration and Bush’s assertion that he has been slowing the rate of growth in government is probably accounted for by the distinction between budget authority and spending. Of course, that’s a distinction that is not clear to most people, including Bush himself — he claimed that he had held down spending, not authorization. So even by his own budget figures his statement was not quite right.

But more fundamentally, the real comparison should look at what Bush has done over his entire term, not just what he proposed for 2005. And by that measure, the growth in government spending by Bush has been extremely high no matter how you look at it.