Conservatives Mad at Bush’s Fiscal Record on Spending but not the Great Tax Shift

Ross Douthat & Reihan Salam writing for the Weekly Standard note:

After all, Ronald Reagan, the man whose legacy Bush has supposedly betrayed, presided over a federal government that consumed 23.5 percent of GDP in 1984. Granted, this was at the height of the Cold War defense build-up, yet the figure far surpasses spending under President Clinton, which reached a low of 18 percent of GDP in 2001. Under Bush, spending has inched over 20 percent of GDP, a definite increase from the era of the “peace dividend.” But spending is still far from Reagan-era levels. And the post-9/11 defense buildup (defense spending has increased by roughly 40 percent over 2001 levels, to nearly half a trillion dollars) accounts for the bulk of the increased spending. When you factor out spending on homeland security, domestic discretionary spending has barely budged under Bush.

While this sounds about right – the National Review’s Ramesh Ponnuru chooses to quibble:

But I have real disagreements with Douthat and Salam as well. It seems to me that they are much too generous about Bush’s generosity with taxpayer dollars here: “When you factor out spending on homeland security, domestic discretionary spending has barely budged under Bush” (their emphasis). I’m not sure that looking solely at domestic discretionary spending makes sense, especially given an administration that asked for, and received, a new entitlement program for prescription drugs for the elderly. In addition, depending on our purpose, we might want a yardstick that takes into account the possibility, even if it is a theoretical one, that domestic spending could be cut to make room for higher defense and security spending. But even ignoring those two caveats, I don’t think that the authors’ claim is true. Brian Riedl of the Heritage Foundation has looked at domestic discretionary spending, excluding homeland-security spending, and he finds that it rose 40 percent between 2001 and 2006. (That’s 7 percent annually.) That’s more than it rose during Clinton’s entire eight years (39 percent, or 4.2 percent annually).

Looking at nominal increases is the kind of stupidity we have come to expect from National Review nitwits like Lawrence Kudlow. But Ponnuru has a real point about the costly prescription drug program, which has yet to be really factored into historical reviews of spending.

Douthat-Salam and Ponnuru toss around “big government conservative” and “small government conservative” a lot but neither piece dared to raise the “T-word”, so let me remind them of Milton Friedman’s adage “to spend is to tax”. President Bush keeps exciting conservatives by telling them he has cut taxes and he intends to make those tax cuts permanent. One would think that just a little space in the Weekly Standard and/or the National Review could be used to tell their readers that Bush’s fiscal policy has only shifted the tax burden to the future – especially as they debate just how much spending has increased.