WASHINGTON – Conservative observers and budget watchdogs are hoping that President Bush breaks a three-year trend of massive spending increases when he sends Congress his 2005 proposed budget for the federal government on Feb. 2.
But budget experts say while the new Bush budget is likely to be somewhat more austere than previous ones, it will not be radically different.
"There are people in the Republican Party who are becoming increasingly uncomfortable with the high level of spending. The difficulty is going to be controlling spending in an election year," said Maya MacGuineas, executive director of the Committee for a Responsible Budget (search).
In the three years since Bush took office, discretionary spending — money that is not tied to long-term entitlements, including defense, domestic security, education and transportation — has grown by 31.5 percent. Non-discretionary spending — mandatory programs such as Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid — has reached record highs.
Overall, federal spending grew on average by 7.6 percent in each of the last two years, more than double the 3.4 percent average annual growth under the Clinton administration.
Current government spending is comparable to the guns and butter growth of the 1960s with the Great Society welfare programs and the Vietnam War, said Brian Riedl, a federal budget analyst at the Heritage Foundation (search). But while national security costs today have swelled the price of government, those costs cannot be entirely blamed for the huge additional spending.
"Vietnam and World War II were times when national security costs were much higher. Since 9/11, less than half of all new spending has had anything to do with 9/11 or the threat of new attacks," Riedl said.
Total federal spending in 2003 topped $20,000 per household for the first time since World War II, Riedl said, and is set to grow another $1,000 per household in 2004.
New spending has gone up by $296 billion from 2001 through the 2003 budget year. Of that, 34 percent, or $100 billion, has gone to defense. The cost of homeland security, clearing the wreckage of the Sept. 11, 2001, terror attacks and money for victims and international assistance and security, has totaled 11 percent of new spending, or about $32 billion. Fifty-five percent, or $164 billion in new spending, is unrelated to national security, going to such programs as unemployment benefits, education, and healthcare, Riedl said.
Combined with tax cuts in 2001 and 2003 and the downturn in the economy, new spending pushed the federal budget into a $374 billion deficit in 2003, the largest dollar amount on record. The Congressional Budget Office and the White House have projected a $450 billion deficit for 2004.
Massive spending and big deficits could alienate conservative voters from Bush, said Richard Lessner, executive director of the American Conservative Union (search). Bush is to blame at least in part for the increases because he has refused to give congressional spending the red light. Bush has not yet used his veto power. The last president to complete a full term without vetoing any legislation was John Quincy Adams in the 1820s.
"Conservatives are becoming very uncomfortable with the trend lines. We've been growing spending under the Republican hegemony much faster than under the Clinton years. If these trend lines continue and there's growing discontent, his political base could erode," he said.
Republican National Committee (search) spokeswoman Christine Iverson rejected the idea that Bush budget policy would alienate voters.
"Most Americans understand that it is important to make our nation and our world a safer place and the fight in the war on terror is a budget priority. Lowering taxes so that working people can keep most of their paycheck is also an important priority," Iverson said.
Riedl said that keeping spending down becomes more difficult when one party controls both the Congress and White House.
"Unified control means that all Republican spending priorities have a serious chance of enactment. If you had a Democratic president and a Democratic Congress, spending would not be going down either. Both parties see government spending as a path to re-election. When you have unified control, the legislative process goes much more smoothly."
But, he added, "If spending is not brought under control now, deficits and substantial tax increases will be required when the current spending increases collide with the retirement of the baby boomers."
Lessner acknowledged that conservatives are unlikely to turn to Democrats to bring spending into control. But, he said, the president does face political turmoil if he ignores their concerns.
"The danger that the president faces is that he'll suppress his base and demoralize it and they’ll throw their hands in the air and say. 'You elect a Democrat and government grows. You elect a Republican and the government grows.'"