Jay Bookman

Opinion columnist and blogger with The Atlanta Journal-Constitution, specializing in foreign relations, environmental and technology-related issues

Who's the biggest spender? The biggest deficit spender?


"And so here’s the truth: this election is about the future, and the Democratic Party, and the political left has no ideas about the future. All their ideas are the same, tired ideas of the past. More government, more spending. For every issue for America, their answer is a new tax on someone, and a new government program. This nation is going to turn the page, and that’s what this election should be about."

-- Sen. Marco Rubio, during the latest GOP presidential debate

Let's take a closer look at the assumptions buried in that statement, shall we? Posted below are two charts, documenting the growth in spending and growth in national debt under the two previous two-term Republican administrations and under President Obama.

The time frames run from the year that each president took office to the year that he leaves office. In Obama's case, the 2017 numbers are necessarily projections from the Office of Management and Budget, but absent some magical, major budget deal coming out of Washington, they should prove pretty accurate.

-- You could argue that spending growth under Obama has been curtailed by a largely Republican Congress, and you'd be correct to an extent. On the other hand, Bush also dealt with a largely Republican Congress, with no such visible impact.

-- You could argue that the spending numbers under Bush are skewed by the necessity of responding to the economic collapse of 2008, which forced the fiscal 2009 budget to rise. But even if you arbitrarily end the Bush years in fiscal 2008, before the collapse really took hold, he and his fellow Republicans oversaw a spending increase of 68 percent.

-- You could argue that Bush had to deal with two major wars, but the larger of those wars was a war of his choice, not a war of necessity. Furthermore, he attempted to "finance" that war with a second major tax cut, something that had never happened during wartime in our nation's history. That contributed significantly to the more than doubling of the federal debt on his watch.

-- You could argue that spending under Reagan grew because he had to deal with a largely Democratic Congress, but that would be a fallacy. In every year from 1981-1989, the total amount of spending approved by Congress was very close to the amount that Reagan himself had requested. He and Congress did bang heads over how the money was to be spent -- how much for this program vs. that program -- but the total spending levels were set by Reagan, and Congress honored them.

In short, you can argue a whole lot of mitigating circumstances, but in the end, the numbers are the numbers. Even if you gave Reagan and Bush credit for all of those allegedly mitigating circumstances in their favor, and gave Obama credit for none of those in his favor, you would still fall well, well short of justifying the mythology that Rubio and his colleagues try to peddle.

Facts is facts.

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About the Author

Jay Bookman writes about government and politics, with an occasional foray into other aspects of life as time, space and opportunity allow.