Federal spending up 16% since Bush took office

Defense, national security, entitlements raise costs

December 06, 2003|By KNIGHT RIDDER/TRIBUNE

WASHINGTON - President Bush came to office saying he was a fiscal conservative, but federal spending has skyrocketed on his watch. And it's not just the Pentagon that's getting more federal dollars.

Overall spending is up by at least 16 percent since he took office, far more than the 2 percent average annual inflation rate over the same period.

According to one recent analysis, the government spends $20,000 a year for every household in America, the most since World War II.

In the meantime, the $236 billion federal surplus that Bush inherited in January 2001 has turned into a $400 billion-plus deficit.

On Monday, Bush will usher in another big new spending program by signing Medicare legislation that creates a prescription-drug benefit for senior citizens at an estimated cost of $400 billion over the next 10 years.

"Spending is up across the board," said Brian Riedl, a budget expert at the Heritage Foundation, a conservative research center. "In the past year and a half, we've had the biggest education bill in history, we've had the biggest farm bill in history and now we're about to have the biggest expansion of the Great Society."

Robert Bixby, the executive director of the Concord Coalition, a bipartisan budget watchdog group, said Bush had joined with the Republican-led Congress in "a huge explosion of spending."

"The Bush administration hasn't done anything to control spending," Bixby said. "He hasn't vetoed a single [spending] bill as he contributes to the expansion of entitlement programs."

Administration officials contend that the criticism - most of which comes from Bush's fellow conservatives - is unfair.

Some of the biggest spending increases, at least in percentage terms, they say, have come in programs related to the war on terrorism and the war in Iraq, such as the $87 billion measure that Congress approved this fall.

Spending on homeland security, an issue that drew little attention before the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, increased by 85 percent last year with the creation of the Homeland Security Department. Even so, it cost only $41 billion in a federal budget of $2.1 trillion - about 2 percent of federal spending.

Other increases occurred in entitlement programs, such as Social Security and Medicare, whose costs grow automatically as people entitled to their services submit claims, without specific spending decisions by Bush or Congress.

Bush aides say the annual growth rate for discretionary spending on programs other than defense is falling after a sharp spike.

After a 15 percent increase in President Bill Clinton's final budget, nondefense discretionary spending grew by just 6 percent in fiscal 2002 and by 5 percent in fiscal 2003, which ended Sept. 30.

Even so, Bush's record is a big disappointment to conservatives, who share his stated goal of a leaner federal government.

"President Bush has yet to meet a spending bill he doesn't like," The Wall Street Journal complained in a recent editorial denouncing what it called "the GOP's spending spree."

An analysis by the Cato Institute, a libertarian research center, branded Bush "the Mother of All Big Spenders" and compared him unfavorably to Clinton. By Cato's accounting, after adjusting for inflation, nondefense spending decreased by 0.7 percent during Clinton's first three years in office, while it increased nearly 21 percent during the comparable period under Bush.

In some cases, Bush pushed for spending increases. For example, federal spending on education, a top presidential priority, has increased 65 percent under Bush.

On other issues, Bush accepted increases backed by Congress for popular programs. To the dismay of some conservatives, he signed a six-year, $249 billion farm bill last year that abandoned efforts to roll back agriculture subsidies.

This year he fought for passage of an energy bill that included $72.5 billion in spending and $23.5 billion in tax breaks, mainly for big energy corporations. The House of Representatives passed the measure but the Senate put off a final vote until next year.

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