Lame Duck, Big Spender

Surprise: Bush beats LBJ as federal spendthrift


In a recent New York Observer column, Richard Brookhiser argues that if George W. Bush "is now a lame duck, it is by his own hand." Bush's response to Hurricane Katrina, says Brookhiser, was doubly disastrous. First (and most important), people died and anarchy was loosed because Bush acted slowly and had surrounded himself with incompetents. Second, as in the immediate aftershock of the 9/11 attacks, Bush failed to provide the proper symbolic rhetoric that is part of the job: "If you can't speak, act," Brookhiser wrote. "Gesture is also a form of speech. Go to your desk. The news will show the chopper landing on the White House lawn. Look serious."

Given that he's a Republican stalwart, a longtime senior editor at National Review, and the Observer's token conservative columnist, you can forgive Brookhiser for fretting over the electoral ramifications from Bush's metamorphosis into a lame duck.

I worry about it for altogether different reasons: When presidents go lame, we all pay—those of us who voted for him, those of us who voted against him, and those of us who voted not at all. The poor in mud-soaked shacks along the Mississippi, the rich on the dry bluffs far above the water's edge, and the middle class stuck somewhere in between—they're on the hook too.

Indeed, the headlines from last Thursday's primetime presidential address from the French Quarter in New Orleans underscored what I'm talking about. As CNN put it, "We Will Do What It Takes." Which translates into: Bush and the GOP will spend whatever it takes to buy back alienated voters. Given the reckless (and near-record-setting) spending of the Republicans so far, that's not exactly a new strategy. But it is likely to get super-charged as Congress finishes up the budget process for the next fiscal year. In the wake of Hurricane Katrina (and staring down yet another storm poised to hit the same area), the desire to spend has meant pledging $200 billion to the entire Gulf Coast so that, as the president put it,

The streets of Biloxi and Gulfport will again be filled with lovely homes and the sound of children playing. The churches of Alabama will have their broken steeples mended and their congregations whole. And here in New Orleans, the street cars will once again rumble down St. Charles, and the passionate soul of a great city will return.

Hence, beyond any immediate aid, a raft of Great Society-ish programs for the region, ranging from a massive "Opportunity Zone," covering parts of Alabama, Mississippi, and Louisiana; an "Urban Homesteading Act;" and massive spending on roads, railroads, and other infrastructure.

It's a sad truth that all presidents in recent memory—from Lyndon Johnson on—have boosted inflation-adjusted total spending every term they've served, ranging from a low of 4.2 percent for Bill Clinton in his first four budgets to a high of 35.8 percent for LBJ. Since total spending includes "mandatory" spending on entitlements, it's not the best measure for calculating a particular president's ability or willingness to cut spending.

For that, look to discretionary spending—which is made up of defense and all other non-entitlement spending. When you stick to discretionary spending, a slightly different, but hardly better, picture emerges. Richard Nixon, for instance, cut total discretionary spending 15.2 percent, the first George Bush cut it by 3.2 percent, and Bill Clinton by 8 percent in his first term (all three accomplished this by reducing defense spending). Other than that, it's always been onward and upward. Even Ronald Reagan boosted discretionary spending in both of his terms—by 8.2 percent in the first and 7 percent in the second.

Those figures come by way of the American Enterprise Institute's Veronique de Rugy, who has calculated that George W. Bush has boosted total inflation-adjusted discretionary spending in his first term by 35.1 percent. To put that in context, chew on this: LBJ—the Texas legend who created the Great Society and, for all intents and purposes, the Vietnam War—only boosted discretionary spending 33.4 percent. What's more, the gap between Bush and LBJ will only grow. De Rugy notes that the final outlays for fiscal year 2005 (the last budget signed in Bush's first term) aren't in yet. As a result, she has to use mid-session review numbers, which are invariably smaller than the final amounts. And, she says, the number for FY2005 "does not take under consideration the numerous supplemental passed this year, and the new spending triggered by the Katrina disaster."

Isn't Bush the son of another ex-president who calls Texas home? Yet here he is, the prodigal, spendthrift son not of George Herbert Walker Bush but of Lyndon Baines Johnson, prosecuting an increasingly unpopular war and spending money like it was water. All that's missing for the transformation to be complete is for Bush to show us the scar on his stomach, pull his dog up by the ears, and start holding cabinet meetings in the bathroom.