Who could have predicted when he took office that George W. Bush would end up looking more like Lyndon Baines Johnson than his own father? But waist deep in the muck of his second term, Dubya is looking positively Johnsonesque: He fights an increasingly unpopular war, he has federalized education to an unprecedented degree, and his most important legacy so far is the prescription drug program that represents the biggest expansion of Medicare since LBJ created that inefficient behemoth back in the 1960s.
Here's more bad news: In his first term, Bush actually increased discretionary spending at a faster clip than the notoriously free-spending LBJ. Discretionary spending includes most defense spending and nonentitlement social programs; it's what the president and Congress decide to spend each year through appropriations bills. Because it could be theoretically zeroed out each year, such spending is the best measure of fiscal responsibility.
American Enterprise Institute budget analyst Veronique de Rugy calculates that in fiscal 1965?68, Johnson raised discretionary spending a whopping 33.4 percent. (All figures are adjusted for inflation and based on Office of Management and Budget data.) He jacked up nondefense discretionary spending 34.2 percent and defense spending 33.1 percent.
How does that stack up to spending by recent presidents? Over two terms, Ronald Reagan increased discretionary spending 15.3 percent, largely due to a 38 percent increase in defense spending. With the Cold War over, Papa Bush's cuts to the defense budget allowed him to reduce discretionary spending by 3.4 percent, even as he goosed nondefense spending by a robust 13.9 percent. Bill Clinton reduced total discretionary spending by 8 percent in his first term before raising it by 8.1 percent in his second.
Then there's George W. Bush. In his first term (fiscal 2002?05), he increased discretionary spending by 35.1 percent, based on OMB estimates released in July. That percentage will be significantly higher once the final figures for fiscal 2005 are in, especially since the mid-session figures do not take into account hundreds of billions in supplemental spending related to Hurricane Katrina and the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.
Bush increased defense spending by 37.2 percent and nondefense discretionary spending by a humongous 37 percent. Even when you subtract homeland security spending, Dubya, with plenty of help from the GOP-controlled Congress, boosted nondefense discretionary spending by 23 percent during his first term. As I write this, outlays for fiscal 2006 are still being debated, but this much is certain: Bush and the Republicans can in no way lay claim to the mantle of fiscal restraint.
You'll get a sense of what all that money has bought us in this issue's stories about Hurricane Katrina's aftermath (see "After the Storm," page 24), education reform ("Let a Thousand Choices Bloom," page 48), and socialized passenger rail ("Amtrak Sucks," page 56). The short answer: nothing but a Texas-sized helping of cow pie.