WASHINGTON — George W. Bush, despite all his recent bravado about being an apostle of small government and budget-slashing, is the biggest spending president since Lyndon B. Johnson. In fact, he's arguably an even bigger spender than LBJ.
“He’s a big government guy,” said Stephen Slivinski, the director of budget studies at Cato Institute, a libertarian research group.
The numbers are clear, credible and conclusive, added David Keating, the executive director of the Club for Growth, a budget-watchdog group.
“He’s a big spender,” Keating said. “No question about it.”
Take almost any yardstick and Bush generally exceeds the spending of his predecessors.
When adjusted for inflation, discretionary spending — or budget items that Congress and the president can control, including defense and domestic programs, but not entitlements such as Social Security and Medicare — shot up at an average annual rate of 5.3 percent during Bush’s first six years, Slivinski calculates.
That tops the 4.6 percent annual rate Johnson logged during his 1963-69 presidency. By these standards, Ronald Reagan was a tightwad; discretionary spending grew by only 1.9 percent a year on his watch.
Discretionary spending went up in Bush's first term by 48.5 percent, not adjusted for inflation, more than twice as much as Bill Clinton did (21.6 percent) in two full terms, Slivinski reports.
Defense spending is the big driver — but hardly the only one.
Under Bush it's grown on average by 5.7 percent a year. Under LBJ — who had a war to fund, too — it rose by 4.9 percent a year. Both numbers are adjusted for inflation.
Including costs for fighting in Iraq and Afghanistan, defense spending under Bush has gone up 86 percent since 2001, according to Chris Hellman of the Center for Arms Control and Non-Proliferation.
Current annual defense spending — not counting war costs — is 25 percent above the height of the Reagan-era buildup, Hellman said.
Homeland security spending also has soared, to about $31 billion last year, triple the pre-9/11 number.
But Bush's super-spending is about far more than defense and homeland security.
Brian Riedl, a budget analyst at the Heritage Foundation, a conservative research group, points to education spending. Adjusted for inflation, it's up 18 percent annually since 2001, thanks largely to Bush’s No Child Left Behind act.
The 2002 farm bill, he said, caused agriculture spending to double its 1990s levels.
Then there was the 2003 Medicare prescription drug benefit — the biggest single expansion in the program’s history — whose 10-year costs are estimated at more than $700 billion.
And the 2005 highway bill, which included thousands of “earmarks,” or special local projects stuck into the legislation by individual lawmakers without review, cost $295 billion.
“He has presided over massive increases in almost every category … a dramatic change of pace from most previous presidents,” said Slivinski.
The White House counters by noting that Bush took office as the country was heading into a recession, then reeled from the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks.
“This president had to overcome some things that required additional spending,” said Sean Kevelighan, a White House budget office spokesman.
Bush does have other backers.
Diana Furchtgott-Roth, a senior fellow at the Hudson Institute, a conservative research group, blamed a ravenous Congress that was eager to show constituents how generous it could be. (Republicans ran that Congress until January. Bush never vetoed a single GOP spending bill.)
The White House points out that, nearly four years ago, Bush vowed to cut the deficit in half by 2009, and he's well on his way to achieving that goal. The fiscal 2004 deficit was a record $412.7 billion; the 2007 figure plunged to $163 billion.
But the deficit drop may be fleeting, experts say, since lawmakers are likely to extend many of Bush’s tax cuts, which expire by the end of 2010, and the imminent retirement of the baby boom generation will send Medicare and Social Security costs soaring in the years ahead.
Now, near the end of the seventh year of his presidency, Bush is positioning himself as a tough fiscal conservative.
He says Congress is proposing to spend $22 billion more in fiscal 2008 than the $933 billion he requested for discretionary programs — and that the $22 billion extra would swell over five years to $205 billion.
Eventually, Bush said, “they’re going to have to raise taxes to pay for it.”
And so, the president told an Arkansas audience earlier this month, people should brace for “what they call a fiscal showdown in Washington.
“The Congress gets to propose and, if it doesn’t meet needs as far as I’m concerned, I get to veto,” he said. “And that’s precisely what I intend to do.”
Bush is getting tough on fiscal policy — after running up a record as the most profligate spender in at least 40 years.
“The spending did happen,” said Keating, “and a lot of it shouldn’t have happened.”