Jeb Bush Criticizes George W. Bush for Spending Too Much—But as Florida's Governor He Also Increased Spending


Gage Skidmore

After spending a week awkwardly defending his brother's legacy of failure in the most recent Iraq war by saying things like, "News flash to the world, if they're trying to find places where there's big space between me and my brother, this might not be one of those," Jeb Bush, when questioned, tentatively broached an issue yesterday on which he might actually have a kinda-sorta disagreement with his brother: government spending. So he claims anyway. The New York Times reports:

"I think that, in Washington during my brother's time, Republicans spent too much money," Mr. Bush said Thursday when asked to describe where there was a "big space" between himself and his brother George W. Bush. "I think he could have used the veto power. He didn't have line-item veto power, but he could have brought budget discipline to Washington, D.C."

… He did qualify that his criticism of the government spending during his brother's tenure as president "seems kind of quaint right now given the fact that after he left, the budget and deficits and spending went up astronomically." 

For a remark that is supposedly about describing Jeb's disagreements with his brother's presidency, there's an awful lot of hedging here.

Notice, for example, the way that Jeb Bush attempts to limit his brother's responsibility for the rise in spending under his watch by first saying broadly that "Republicans" were the ones spending too much money, and then noting that Bush II didn't have the power to go through budgets line-by-line. And then check out the move-on-nothing-to-see-here wrap-up line, which comes across as a half-hearted attempt to insist that, sure, whatever responsibility his brother may have had for ramping up government spending and public debt, it's not really worth worrying about now because President Obama has been ever so much worse. As they say: to be sure!

Actually, let's spend a little bit of time dwelling on the federal government's spending under President George W. Bush, and how it compares to other presidents. Go back to the end of 2009, when data for Bush's last year as president was released, and it's immediately clear that the Bush administration set records for both spending levels and spending increases. Under Bush, total federal spending increased from $1.8 trillion to a little more than $3.5 trillion. That means he presided over the most significant increase in federal spending since Lyndon B. Johnson was president in the 1960s.

The record of increase is important, because it paved the way for the big spending of the Obama years. Yes, President Obama has spent more than President Bush every year—and it's been too much on every occasion. But federal spending under Obama has increased at a far slower rate than under President Bush. Obama took Bush's baseline and built on it, but George W. Bush's spending increases were a big part of what made Obama's spending possible. So while Jeb Bush is right that deficits went up astronomically under Obama (they've also come back down quite a bit, at least temporarily), he's not on strong ground when he says that "spending went up astronomically" under the current president, at least in terms of the amount of increase. Spending went up astronomically under George W. Bush, and then stayed high, too high, under President Obama. 

It's nice, of course, to see that Jeb Bush has chosen to single out runaway spending and bad budgeting as a problem for Republicans in Washington, D.C. during the last time they controlled the White House, but it shouldn't be dismissed in favor of an exclusive focus on Obama-era fiscal foul-ups.

Meanwhile, Jeb Bush's theoretical commitment to spending restraint should probably be questioned a little given his own budgetary record during the Bush years: Between 1999 and 2007, when Jeb Bush was governor of Florida, general fund spending in the Sunshine State rose 57 percent, from $18 billion to $28.2 billion, and total spending grew 45 percent, according to data from the National Association of State Budget Officers, as the Cato Institute's Chris Edwards noted last year. The libertarian think tank gave him a C grade for his final year in office, noting his propensity for both cutting taxes and letting spending grow.

So, Jeb Bush's record is one of tax cuts paired with spending increases. That sounds rather familiar, doesn't it?

Jeb may now disagree with George W. Bush's freewheeling spending during the bulk of the 00s, but as the duly elected Republican executive of one of the nation's biggest states, Jeb Bush wasn't exactly a spendthrift himself. Practically speaking, it's hard to see a very "big space" between how Jeb Bush and his brother handled government spending during those years. 

(My colleagues and I will have much more on the spending records for Jeb Bush, Chris Christie, Scott Walker, Rick Perry, and a slew of other presidential wannabes in the very next issue of reason. You should subscribe right now!)