Government Spending

Bush Spent His Credibility

Assessing the president's newfound commitment to fiscal conservatism

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In his 2007 State of the Union speech, right at the moment when the Democrats took over Congress, President Bush came out of the closet as a fiscal conservative. The laughter was still echoing on Monday night, when he ascended the podium for his last State of the Union speech.

Bush nevertheless braved ridicule by reiterating his newfound commitment to pork-free balanced budgets. Even if we take him at his word, nothing he has proposed can undo the damage he did in his first six years.

Bush's approach to earmarks, the centerpiece of his get-tough fiscal strategy, shows his lack of seriousness. He issued an executive order instructing agencies to ignore earmarks that do not appear in the legislative text, and he threatened to veto any spending bill that "does not cut the number and cost of earmarks in half."

But the order does not kick in until fiscal year 2009, so it does not affect any of this year's earmarks—11,737 items totaling $16.9 billion, by the administration's count. More than 90 percent of those earmarks do not have the force of law because they appear in committee reports or other documents outside the spending bills to which they were attached.

Once the executive order takes effect (and assuming the next president does not rescind it), Congress can readily evade it by including language in spending bills that makes earmarks listed in committee reports mandatory. Even without such maneuvers, agencies anxious to maintain good relations with the people who provide their budgets may decide to fund legislators' pet projects.

Like his executive order, the president's veto threat does not apply, even theoretically, until after October 1. Given Congress' usual tardiness in passing appropriations bills, which this year will be compounded by the presidential election, Bush may not have a chance to veto any.

The results of previous veto threats are not encouraging. The Heritage Foundation found that last year's omnibus spending bill exceeded Bush's supposedly nonnegotiable limit by $20 billion, relying on budget tricks to create the illusion of compliance.

Bush's belated, half-hearted attack on earmarks looks even more pathetic set against his fiscal performance when his party controlled the power of the purse. In the first six years of the Bush administration, during which the president did not see fit to veto a single appropriations bill, discretionary spending rose by an average of 5.3 percent a year in real terms, according to the Cato Institute's Stephen Slivinski, outpacing Lyndon Johnson's annual average of 4.6 percent. Budget surpluses turned into deficits, and federal spending as a share of gross domestic product, which fell to 18.4 percent under Bill Clinton, rose above 20 percent again.

Much of the new spending went to defense and homeland security, and anyone who considers the war in Iraq a mistake or looks at the details of how anti-terrorism money is spent would have to agree that a lot of it was wasted. Bush's "compassionate conservative" vision also featured higher outlays in other areas, including education spending, which has increased 18 percent a year since 2001.

The most conspicuous example of Bush's profligacy is the Medicare prescription drug benefit he championed and still cites with pride. Indeed, the worst thing about earmarks, which represent less than 1 percent of total federal spending, may be the way they're used in the logrolling that wins passage of budget-busting monstrosities like this one.

During its first decade, the drug benefit is expected to cost about $70 billion a year, four times all of this year's earmarks put together. Over the long term, it accounts for almost a quarter of Medicare's estimated $34 trillion shortfall.

In a statement issued before the State of the Union speech, the White House worried about "the unsustainable growth in spending for Medicare" and "Medicare's long-term unfunded liability." Given the president's record of fiscal recklessness, that's about as believable as a statement from Cookie Monster condemning gluttony.

© Copyright 2008 by Creators Syndicate Inc.

NEXT: The Non-Rebuilding of Iraq

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  1. But, but… The DEMOCRATS want to raise your TAXES!

  2. It’s normal to fault one man for spending but,as a classical liberal,I know the truth.Only Congress can spend money.We on this site can beat up on FDR,LBJ,Nixon,Clinton and the Bushes but we know the truth.Spending bills are huge with many unrelated items crammed together.Of course the President can have his wants but Congress must fund them.Woe to the man who veto’s massive spending.You’ll be accused of hating children,old people and the poor.Bills are so massive that to veto one risks the ire of many.Until Congress controls themselves it will never end

  3. Michael Pack –
    This is true. Hence why I think maybe the libertarian movement is better off trying to get some senators in there. Presidents are great and high profile and stuff, but if we can simply back a few senatorial candidates from our vast network (developed for the Ron Paul candidacy), it’ll be “Sneak attack from the back, 1, 2, 3, 4.”

  4. Please remember that Congress does indeed write the bills–that their constituents demand. So point your finger at your fellow Americans. They (and we) are the pigs at the trough.

  5. The point about omnibus spending bills is a good one, but if the President made an honest effort to get out in front of the process and crack the whip, it would make a difference.
    For example, the President might point out to the members of the House Committee on Government Reform (either privately, or over the airwaves) that there are issues more central to the proper function of government than steroids in baseball. Like procedural changes to eliminate last-minute omnibus spending bills.

  6. The President is not supposed to get out in front.The spending starts in the house and the senate was set up to slow things down for discussion.One man facing down 535!You must be kidding.Plus,Congress can have all the hearing they want.The President has no power to stop them.Congress has and is the problem.Lenin could be President and if Congress did there job we’d be fine.

  7. Michael,
    If the President’s party controls the legislature, as it did for most of Bush’s 2 terms, he’d better get out in front. He only cared about spending when the pork primarily went to Democratic districts rather than Republican ones.

  8. What’s this “bully pulpit” I keep hearing about? The President cannot necessarily put a gun to their empty Congressional heads, but he could, if he had the desire and the guts, go over their heads and point out their failures to the People.

    When were the rules changed to allow the omnibus monstrosities? In the Nixon era, I believe.

  9. The Presidents party.Give me a break.The party contains every one from eastern liberals to men[2 or 3]like Ron Paul.Most bills are trade offs,congressmen from opposing parties making deals for themselves.Party means little to these people.Staying in power and getting their share is the means to a end.I’ll bet Ted Kennedy has more friends and support among republicans then does Bush.They need each other.Party only counts during an election.

  10. I seem to recall a budget showdown in the Clinton years…

  11. P Brooks,omnibus bills started after Watergate brought many new faces to the hill.It also brought us spending limits on election[free speech].This entrenched thieves in both parties.I’m sure though Nixion would have agreed.He did bring us wage and price controls and showed a lust for power at all costs.

  12. Yes there was a show down and more spending won out.Horror stories about no S.S. checks and the gov. shutting down won the day.Remember ‘The Gingrich that Stole Christmas’?

  13. Appropriations in Congress can be like a Mexican standoff: you drop yours first, no you drop yours first.

    The President is in a position to break through this dynamic and serve as a combination of honest broker and fall guy, if he so chooses.

  14. The question is, who was behind dropping the Pay-as-you-go rules in congress. While this made tax cutting difficult, it also made spending increases difficult, which is what allowed the expenditures as a percent of GDP to drop.

  15. As I recall, George W Peron’s spokesmen repeatedly assured us that the Prez had worked behind the scenes with Senator Frist and Congressman Hastert; there was no reason to veto anything because there was nothing wrong with the Bills which came to him.

  16. Not sure if you’ve read the Constitution, Michael. In there, there’s a mechanism for the president to stop Congress from passing a bill. It’s called a veto. Bush didn’t use it until 2006 for the stem cell bill. He has fewer vetoes/year than any President since Fillmore (except for Garfield and his 6 month presidency). He could’ve done something about the spending, and vetoes the bills. Grover Cleveland vetoed more bills than all but FDR because he actually opposed pork barrel spending.

  17. Medicare Presciption Drug Benefit. Medicare Presciption Drug Benefit. Medicare Presciption Drug Benefit. Medicare Presciption Drug Benefit. Medicare Presciption Drug Benefit. Medicare Presciption Drug Benefit. Medicare Presciption Drug Benefit. Medicare Presciption Drug Benefit.

  18. They (and we) are the pigs at the trough.

    I am appalled by Reason’s insensitivity to the sensitivities of millions of Americans like myself. We should emulate the British by attempting to avoid offending the Muslim faithful.

  19. Sorry. We’re like, er, rabbits at the trough.

  20. …George W. Bush’s notably late discovery of fiscal responsibility.

    Now if we could only get him to discover fecal responsibility…

  21. Please remember that Congress does indeed write the bills–that their constituents demand.

    If by “constituents” you mean “cronies”, I would agree.

    The President is in a position to break through this dynamic and serve as a combination of honest broker and fall guy, if he so chooses.

    I suspect that its the “fall guy” part of this equation that causes it to fail.

    Not to mention that, in the hyperpartisan climate prevailing in D.C. for at least the last 15 years, the “honest broker” bit is hard to manage, too.

  22. Mo,I’ve read it and my posts bear that out.The veto is not a cure for the run away spending we have today.With omnibus bills and earmarks a President would have to veto every bill to bring back fiscal sanity.It was never meant for that.Can you imagine the beating he would take for such action?One man cannot be the end all for government.Nor should they.

  23. Can someone please explain the whole “More than 90 percent of those earmarks do not have the force of law because they appear in committee reports or other documents outside the spending bills to which they were attached.” thing.

    If the earmarks do not appear in the bil, but in a committee report — how is the money gets spent on those projects? I understand they don’t have the “force of law”, but I would assume they get funded nonetheless…otherwise why include them in the report. So, if they do get funded even if they aren’t part of the law — HOW is the funding done, and HOW is it not seen as theft, embezzlement or something?

  24. joe, of course, is here to troll the big-government agenda.

  25. Looks like somebody I’ve been thumping needed to find a new handle. Again.

    Why does that keep happening? I’m still joe, with the email address.

  26. joe,

    If it’ll make you feel better, I’m still here to callout your more than occasional nonsense.

    Don’t get feeling all lonely, now.

  27. Neo-con = increase spending, buy power using the US treasury, cut taxes, rack-up MASSIVE debt from 2000-2006, pretend you are in favor of small government by pointing at the lower taxes. (No the spending wasn’t the war, that was only .6 trillion of the 4 trillion in extra debt we now have – more than $10,000 more debt for EVERY American citizen.)

  28. It’s almost like current republicans believe that spending more and collecting less is fiscal responsibility. The sad part is that it actually works to mereley cut taxes and the dumb people say “duh, oh see, they are making the government smaller, duh uh. They have principles about government.” It’s just ridiculous.

  29. Just look at the first post by Reinmoose. “the DEMOCRATS want to raise your TAXES”. Yes, my simple friend, because we are in massive debt from a republican congress and president who didn’t want to raise my taxes. You, Reinmoose, owe upwards of $20,000 now. And each of your kids the same.

  30. Given Congress’ usual tardiness in passing appropriations bills, which this year will be compounded by the presidential election

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