It's an article of faith among Democrats that President Reagan was responsible for the doubling of the national debt during the 1980s. Not so, say Stephen Moore, director of fiscal policy studies at the Cato Institute, and investment analyst Michael A. Byrd in a new Institute for Policy Innovation report, "Whose Free Lunch?: The Truth About the 'Reagan Deficits.'" Like so many others before them, Moore and Byrd rebut claims that tax cuts drained the federal Treasury. They point out that tax revenues increased 24.1 percent between 1982 and 1989, virtually identical to the 24.4 percent rise from 1974 to 1981, and higher than the 19.3 percent growth projected for 1990-1997, after the Bush and Clinton tax hikes.
But former Senate Majority Leader Robert C. Byrd maintains that if Congress had approved Reagan's appropriations requests, the deficit would have been even higher. True and false, say the report's authors. Reagan did request about $90 billion more for defense appropriations. But Byrd's claim leaves out entitlement programs, which make up over half the federal budget. If all of Reagan's requests had been approved, spending would have been $209 billion lower.
And when Democrats controlled both houses in 1987-1988, congressional spending exceeded the president's requests by an average of $51 billion, far above the $20 billion average when Republicans controlled the Senate from 1981 to 1986.
Moore and Byrd don't absolve Reagan for the deficits during the 1980s, noting that he exercised his veto power sparingly and never submitted a balanced budget. They simply state that Congress, particularly Democrat members, deserves more of the responsibility.