The collective fondness for presidents grows after they leave office for a simple reason. The next occupant of the office is always worse.
For instance, George W. Bush’s approval rating is now 49% versus 46% who view him negatively. Absence has certainly made some hearts grow fonder from the post-Katrina, 2008 Wall Street bailout days.
Conservatives may carp about Obama and his spending, while pining for the good old conservative days of “W.” They may want to have their memories jogged with Stephen Slivinski’s book Buck Wild: How Republicans Broke the Bank and Became the Party of Big Government.
When it comes to spending the hard-earned money they steal from you, modern Republicans are just as guilty as Democrats. Slivinski lays it out in black and white. When it comes to growth of government annualized on a per-capita basis, LBJ takes the cake, at 4.6%, followed by George W. Bush at 3.1% through his first five years. (The book was written prior to Obama taking office.) Carter is a close third at 2.9%, followed by Nixon/Ford and Ronald Reagan. Bill Clinton actually scores the least growth: only 0.03%.
Clinton gets a bad rap from conservatives for Monica and her blue dress and Hillary with her attempted takeover of health care. But when he left office, “federal outlays equaled only 18.4% of GDP,” Slivinski writes. “That’s the lowest government spending had been since 1961.”
At the same time, the way Republicans pay homage to Reagan one would think he had cut government to the bone while in office. In the Republican presidential debate at the Reagan Library last year, each candidate talked about how great the Gipper was.
Well, Reagan didn’t cut government at all. But as the author points out, “You have to give him credit for holding [the welfare state] to a 2% real annual growth rate.” Additionally, Slivinski gives Reagan a lot of credit just for speaking on behalf of smaller government.
Yes, Reagan talked a good small government game. Plus, he did slow down what had been 4% annual government growth in the 1960s and ’70s to just over half that during the ’80s.
But as Slivinski chronicles, Reagan was but a minor speed bump in Washington’s quest to spend more of your money.
Buck Wild isn’t just a book about numbers. What makes it interesting and valuable is the picture of the budget process that it paints. A young policy wonk, David Stockman, was Reagan’s director of the Office of Management and Budget (OMB). The shaggy-haired bachelor was ready to work 15-hour days to slash Washington’s bloat.
He was a true believer ready to throttle the federal government back to what the Founders had in mind. However, Stockman found out that tearing away at Washington’s bureaucracy is easy to propose and hard to accomplish.
Jimmy Carter had ramped up the federal budget to 17% above the inflation rate. With all of that fat, implementing a hiring freeze, cutting travel budgets 15%, and putting a temporary halt to furniture and office equipment expenditures should have been a breeze. Not in D.C. There was so much squawking about the proposed cuts and freezes “that within a week after Reagan’s inauguration, Stockman ended up allowing so many exemptions that the directive became virtually meaningless.”
Reagan may have wanted to take a meat ax to government, and his OMB director may have wanted to cut government, but most of the people Reagan appointed were interested only in maintaining the Washington status quo.
Reagan famously wished to eliminate the Department of Education. However, Terrel Bell, whom Reagan appointed as education secretary, turned out to be four square against downsizing government. “Those who accused me of being part of the education establishment were right,” Bell wrote in his memoirs.
The chapter “Why Reagan Matters” is especially instructive. Most voters believe that if the right people were elected, this whole big government mess would be fixed. Reagan was the right guy at the right time. What happened? Washington plays by its own set of rules, no matter who is president.
Slivinski gives the reader a crash course in Baseline Budgeting 101. In 1982, courtesy of Carter’s last budget, Congress expected the budget to grow 11%. When Reagan proposed a 6% increase instead, Capitol Hill had a collective hissy fit. You, a reasonable reader, might ask, “Why? 6% is still a healthy increase.” But in Washington, what Reagan proposed was a 5% cut!
Washington is never-never land, where dreams and pork are made and the money appears from nowhere — either from hapless taxpayers or selling bonds.
The voters spoke again in 1994, sending young firebrands to Capitol Hill to stop the madness. Freshman like Sam Brownback and Joe Scarborough called themselves children of Reagan, “passionately committed to taming the federal behemoth,” writes Slivinski.
However, the revolution was short-lived, and 10 years later, little remained of their proposed reforms.
Just what happens to these well-intentioned folks who pledge to fight on behalf of the taxpayer? It’s that smell. Washington’s white marble has a smell. And as New Hampshire Sen. Norris Cotton told Tennessee’s Howard Baker, “And when you can smell it, you’ll like it. And you’ll be ruined for life.” As Slivinski explains, once your Congress person smells the marble, he or she has “gone native.” Fighting Big Government is just something that is talked about. The real agenda is to keep the peace and go along to get along.
But it was the George W. Bush administration that really went off the fiscal rails. Slivinski’s chapter “Selling Out” is a blizzard of Bush’s budget-busting numbers and percentages. Post Sept. 11, the total number of pork projects sent to the president was 8,341, a new record. As Winslow Wheeler, senior analyst for the Senate Appropriations Committee, quipped, “War is not hell; it’s an opportunity.”
It could have been so different. As the author explains, in the wake of the attacks, Bush could have pulled a “full Gipper” and used his popularity to slow down government spending. Instead, he signed every bill that came his way. This was guns and butter on steroids. “The net result was a one-year 10% increase in discretionary spending after adjusting for inflation — the biggest real rate of growth since 1967, and almost twice what Bush had proposed.”
Stephen Slivinski is an expert on taxes and budgets, and works for the Goldwater Institute, after serving as director of budget studies at the Cato Institute. His time at Cato gave him keen insight into the ways of Washington. He writes that the capitol “always reminded me of a high school. It’s cliquish and thrives on popularity contests.”
Congress needs adult supervision, but that is sorely lacking. With Washington’s culture of spending and waste, even those thinking they will come to Washington and slay the government dragon are quickly conditioned to play Big Government’s game.
Buck Wild is a quick read that will make you understand where your money goes and why. It may not make you happy, and you may shake your head in disgust, but knowing the truth is its own reward.