Presidents and Congress, Republicans and Democrats: Spending, Taxation, Debt, and GDP

by Steve Roth, asymptosis
Cross-posted at Asymptosis.

Thanks to yeoman’s work by Larry Bartels, Mike Kimel, and a host of others, we’ve seen that over many decades, the American economy has performed far better, by almost any measure, under Democratic presidents. Larry Bartels’ key graph mapping income growth by quintile, 1948-2005 (from page 33 of Unequal Democracy) is perhaps the best demonstration of that. Even the rich get richer, faster, under Democratic presidents.

The poor and the middle class get far richer: All those findings came as a surprise to me when I first saw the data. I’d pretty much accepted the Republican “party of growth” party line, after hearing it repeated thousands of times over several decades.

It turns out that at least for American presidents, it just isn’t true. Not even close. Even though the data’s been sliced, diced, and analyzed every which way from Sunday, with consistent results, critics still try to second-guess it. Many or most of these objections are spurious — statistically illiterate, logically flawed, or just plain self-contradictory special pleading. But at least one repeated question does bear examination: What about Congress? Don’t they supposedly control the purse-strings?

Here are some questions — some of which may seem to have “obvious” answers, though we really can’t know until we look systematically:
1. Do Democrats and Republicans in the different branches deliver systematically different results in spending, revenues, and deficits (and more tenuously, second-order effects like real GDP per capita)?
2. What are those party differences? Are they large differences?
3. Do those difference themselves differ depending on whether the parties are in control of the Senate, the House, and/or the Presidency? IOW, do Dems/Pubs act differently in the House than they do in the Senate or the presidency?
4. Which branches have the greatest effects on different economic measures?
5. In which branches do Democratic and Republican results differ the most? Does that vary depending on the economic measure you’re looking at?
6. Do certain party combinations in the Senate/House/Presidency show systematically different results in spending, revenues, etc.? Is there any sign of an optimal or dystopic combination?
7. Do there seem to be systematic differences between mixed and monolithic control of the branches?
8. Directly addressing the objections mentioned above: does an analysis of congressional results undercut, disprove, or otherwise alter the conclusions from the research on presidential outcomes linked above?

To look into these questions I built a spreadsheet for the years 1961-2009, based on one built by my friend Steve, who tagged all the years for which party controlled each branch. (Thanks, Steve!) The spreadsheet (with data sources cited) is here.*
(Rdan see the spreadshheet as intended, use the link. Blogger refused to translate for me)
I chose to start in ’61 not only because the period basically spans my sentient life (self-serving bias?), but because 1. it’s a reasonably long period (49 years), and 2. by then the wild economic swings following the Depression and World War II had settled down. If anyone wants to extend the period backward, it’s an easy matter to add the data from the sources cited in the spreadsheet. You can jump down to the resulting graphs, or even the summary, but some discussion is in order first.


The central issue here: there are many different ways to look at this data. I’ve chosen ones that I think will give the most inclusive, comprehensive, and comprehensible insights into the questions above, revealing both the big picture and the sometimes messy, contradictory, and ambiguous results. Given the nature of the data, it simply can’t answer some of the questions above. I detail my choices here. I encourage others to use the spreadsheet to create different views — hopefully widely representative ones, eschewing intentional (or even unconscious) cherry-picking. My choices were driven by just plain curiosity about the “facts on the ground.” I had some notions of what I might find (Dems tax and spend? Pubs borrow and spend?), but given how wrong I was on presidents and economic growth, I wanted to see the numbers. I encourage others to operate from similar principles. For each year, I entered the change in spending, revenues, debt, and real GDP per capita. Then I built “lags,” so we can look at results in ensuing years. (This assuming that it takes some time to implement then see the effects of policy changes; it doesn’t happen instantly.) Here’s the upper left corner of the spreadsheet. The “change” percentages are from a simple calc: (year2-year1)/year1.


year senate house president dominant congress Mix spend0 spend1 spend2 spend3
1961 D D D D DD DDD 1.51% -1.31% -0.23% -0.21%
1962 D D D D DD DDD -1.31% -0.23% -0.21% -1.54%
1963 D D D D DD DDD -0.23% -0.21% -1.54% 0.49%
1964 D D D D DD DDD -0.21% -1.54% 0.49% 2.35%
1965 D D D D DD DDD -1.54% 0.49% 2.35% 0.67%
1966 D D D D DD DDD 0.49% 2.35% 0.67% -0.39%
1967 D D D D DD DDD 2.35% 0.67% -0.39% 0.92%
1968 D D D D DD DDD 0.67% -0.39% 0.92% 0.49%
1969 D D R D DD DDR -0.39% 0.92% 0.49% -0.13%
1970 D D R D DD DDR 0.92% 0.49% -0.13% -1.58%
1971 D D R D DD DDR 0.49% -0.13% -1.58% 0.45%

As an example of lagging, the “spend1” data is simply shifted up one year, meaning that the parties controlling the Senate, House, and Presidency get “credit” (or blame) for changes that happen a year later. Ditto for the two-, three-, and four-year lags. Note that lagging by an additional year means there’s one less year (at the end) to evaluate. We can’t look at a three-year lag for 2008, for instance, because 2011 hasn’t happened yet. Since we’re averaging over a 49-year period, it’s to be hoped that loss of those later years will not corrupt the results excessively. (This gets more problematic when you start slicing up the data; more on that below.)

Since I don’t use any of the zero-year-lag results (I think for obvious reasons, mentioned above, which necessitate the use of lags in the first place), the graphs below don’t tell us anything about Obama’s results in 2009. Previous years’ regimes are analyzed based on the economic changes in 2009, but we have no lagging data on ensuing economic changes with which to analyze 2009. (If anyone wants to add projected data for 2010 and beyond, feel free. Just be sure to tell your readers.) Yes, this means that the Pub presidents get blamed for 2009, but so does the Democratic congress in ’07 and ’08. Carter gets blamed for some rocky years under Reagan in ’81 and ’82. And etc., throughout the table. This is why we need to look at multiple lags and many years; it serves to average out all the allocations that might seem “unfair” in the particular.

Another method would look at the total (summed or averaged) changes over one-, two-, three-, and four-year ensuing periods. As you’ll see in the graphs below, I chose to summarize similarly by averaging the multiple lag results. I encourage others to try the other methods. I can only display so many graphs here. As I mentioned above, the analysis gets problematic quite quickly when you start slicing the data into smaller pieces. Our short, 49-year sample quickly rears its head. Smaller, shorter slices, for instance, might only reflect where they happen to land in the business cycle. And slices concentrated at the beginning or end of the period might be distorted by long, secular trends (geopolitical, cultural, technological) that have nothing to do with party control — Matthew Arnold’s “ebb and flow of human misery.”

Here’s the number of years since ’61 for different regime combinations (Senate/House/President): RRD 6
DDD 15
DDR 16

A comparison of DDD to DDR looks like the most promising in this set of slices because they’re both lengthy and scattered through the 49-year period. Since the only difference is in presidential control, that comparison may have special applicability to the presidency question that launched this investigation, #8. The smaller slices will be much more subject to business cycles and secular trends. For instance, we’ve got three six-year, single-president slices. RDR is a single span from ’81-’86, when Volcker and Reagan, with a mixed Congress, were trying to pull us out of the biggest recession since World War II (and succeeding) and a 40-year cold war (eventually succeeding). It seems foolish to draw any grand, sweeping conclusions from that single and arguably anomalous slice. Likewise: RRD is 1995 to 2000 (Clinton), and RRR is 2001 to 2006 (Bush II) — the first a massive boom (bubble?), the other a recession and tepid recovery. Hard to make useful comparisons. DDD and DDR, by comparison, reflect sixteen- and fifteen-year slices scattered from the beginning to the end of the period. Anyone can feel free to write narratives based on comparing all these slices.

I’ve presented them in the graphs below. But with the exception of DDD and DDR comparisons, I would suggest that those spins will be statistically spurious. You’re just telling stories about single presidencies, which is exactly what we’re trying to overcome here. Here are the Senate/House combos:

DD 31
RD 6
RR 12

In those 49 years we’ve never had a Democratic Senate and Republican House. And in only six years have we had mixed Congressional control (those six Reagan years). These two facts, especially combined, make it largely impossible to throw any real light on question #7 (mixed versus monolithic control) with this analysis. DD is a large and scattered sample with both R and D presidents. RR is a single span late in the period — 1995-2006 — so it’s more subject to distortion by longer-term trends, but it’s half under Clinton, half under Bush II. RR and DD comparisons might yield insights. Larry Bartels ran into these same difficulties when trying to add the effects of the legislature to his regressions. He uses different phrasing in his explanation, which I’ll let you peruse in a footnote.* If you’re so inclined, you can also slice the data in the spreadsheet by the “dominant” party — the one controlling two out of three branches. I didn’t find much of interest there, but go to town. Again, I can only display so many graphs without it all becoming meaningless spaghetti.

The Graphs
One more bit of explanation — of the graphs themselves — is necessary here. I’ve made the assumption that parties can have a somewhat immediate effect on taxes, spending, and debt. So for those measures I’ve given the average of only the one- and two-year lags. I’ve shown all four bars, though, so you can see the numbers and, if you think it’s useful, eyeball-average them. For changes in real GDP per capita — which is a second-order effect and hence (in [my] theory at least) takes longer to appear — I’ve given the average of all four lags. You can produce any other calculations or presentations you want using the spreadsheet. The highlighted averages are generally in the vertical position indicating their values, except where I’ve had to move them to avoid obscuring information. That said, here we go.


Revenues as a percent of GDP. This means there’s no need to correct for inflation, with the inherent uncertainties of that correction. Short story, everybody cuts taxes except Democratic presidents.


Democratic presidents raise taxes. Republican presidents lower them. Alert the media. (This graph shows nicely why I don’t pay much attention to three- and four-year lags for changes in revenues, spending, and debt.)


Surprise: Dem senators are tax cutters — just not as much as Pubs. For both parties, the effects are dwarfed by presidential differences.


Pretty much the same as the Senate, except that Dem House members cut taxes more than Republicans.


DDs and RRs are remarkably similar, with small magnitudes.


The DDD and DDR results are quite similar to the presidential results, above.


Again, as a percent of GDP so we needn’t correct for inflation. Republican presidents and Democratic senators are the big spenders, followed by Democratic house members. Democratic presidents are as frugal as Republican legislators.

Republican presidents raise spending significantly faster than Democrats.


Dem senators, on the other hand, increase spending something like eight times as fast as Republicans. The data reads darned consistently here, and unlike with taxation, the magnitudes are similar to presidential changes.


Almost the same as the Senate: Democrats increase spending faster than Republicans, and with magnitudes similar to the Senate and Presidents.


Again very similar to the Senate and House. Democrats in Congress increase spending much faster than Republicans.


DDD vs. DDR basically reflects the presidential differences.


As a percent of GDP. Somebody might want to add columns to the spreadsheet showing deficit changes, and look at it that way instead.


Profoundly large magnitudes and differences here, and remarkably consistent even into the three- and four-year lags.


Democratic senators, unlike presidents, increase the debt — but nowhere near as fast as Republicans. Smaller magnitudes here than with presidents.


Not so the House. Republican congresspeople are more frugal than their Democratic colleagues. Magnitude a bit less than the Senate, far less than presidents.


DDs and RRs are basically the same.


Real GDP per Capita

This measure is, necessarily, corrected for inflation. Changes in real personal income, a la Bartels, would arguably be a good alternative or additional measure.

Lags two and three show the parties in parity. Lags one and four create a Democratic advantage to the tune of .5% extra growth per year.


Very consistent, and very little difference between the parties. Magnitudes similar to presidents’.


Also fairly consistent (though the one-year lag shows party parity) and with similar magnitudes, with the Democrats associated with faster growth.



DDD and DDR again mirror presidential results, though somewhat more pronounced.


Here’s a summary of all the average changes. (Remember: revenues, spending, and debt changes are averaged over the one- and two-year lags. Real GDP per capita changes are averaged over all four lags.)


Here’s my narrative. You can call it spin, but I hope you’ll at least agree that it’s not contradicted by the facts as they’re analyzed here. Feel free to copy and paste these graphs (credit please), or create your own, and write your own story. 1. On revenues and spending, presidential effects appear to overwhelm congressional effects. This is not surprising when you consider the presidential drives behind Reagan and Bush II’s tax cuts and defense buildups, Johnson’s Great Society plus Vietnam, Clinton’s tax increases, etc. 2. Everyone increases spending (Republican legislators just barely) — Democrats significantly more than Republicans. 3. Only Democratic presidents have the political courage to raise taxes. (Given this, their ability to get elected at all says a lot for their popularity.) 4. Of Republicans, only House members hold the line on debt, due to tiny changes in both revenues and spending. 5. Democratic presidents are the only ones to reduce the debt — and they do so in a big way. (See #3.) 6. Overall, Democratic control is associated with greater growth in real GDP per capita. (In the Senate, Pubs and Dems are essentially the same.) To do the arithmetic for you: if Republican presidents had managed equal increases during their 28 years in power, GDP/capita would be approximately 15% higher than it is today — $53K per person per year, as opposed to $46K. And if Larry Bartels’ graph is any indication, far more of that (greater) GDP would be flowing through the hands of the middle class. That’s my story and I’m sticking to it (unless you convince me otherwise).

———————— * You’ll need to know, or learn to use, Excel’s pivot tables — which you should do in any case cause they kick ass. I’ve given brief instructions in the spreadsheet. The graphs require some slightly sophisticated hand-tuning (data sources, label displays, axes, etc.) depending on what you’re trying to show. ** From Unequal Democracy, page 34 (screen grab so I don’t have to type it in):