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A Project of The Annenberg Public Policy Center

Defending Spending? Bush’s Blooper

The President wrongly claimed he cut the growth of discretionary spending. Reality: the growth rate multiplied.


President Bush slipped up in his hour-long interview with NBC’s Tim Russert over the weekend, claiming that the growth of discretionary federal spending has slowed markedly since he took office. But in fact, annual growth has been in double digits for the past three years, far higher than in any year of the Clinton administration.

A Bush spokesman said the President meant to refer to discretionary spending minus military spending and spending for homeland security. But what the President actually said was wrong.


Figures recently released by the Office of Management and Budget show the Bush Administration’s explosion of discretionary federal spending. Here is a chart based on historical figures from the U.S. Budget showing percentage increases in discretionary outlays

Source: Office of Management and Budget, Budget of the United States Government: Fiscal Year 2005: Analytical Perspectives and Historical Tables table 8.7  — OUTLAYS FOR DISCRETIONARY PROGRAMS: 1962–2009.

That’s an average annual growth rate of 2.4% during Clinton’s eight years, compared to an average of 11.8% during Bush’s first three.

So in his Feb. 8 interview the President erred in this exchange:

Russert: But your base conservatives — and listen to Rush Limbaugh, the Heritage Foundation, CATO Institute, they’re all saying you are the biggest spender in American history.

President Bush: Well, they’re wrong.

Russert: Mr. President —

President Bush: If you look at the appropriations bills that were passed under my watch, in the last year of President Clinton, discretionary spending was up 15 percent, and ours have steadily declined.

Discretionary spending — meaning spending that is subject to annual legislative appropriations, as opposed to spending for entitlement programs such as Social Security and Medicare — actually grew only 5.6% in Clinton ‘s last budget year (fiscal year 2001, which began October 1, 2000).

Since then discretionary spending has not “steadily declined” as the President said, but has gone up. In fact, the growth has been much faster than under Clinton. In the first year for which President Bush signed the spending bills, discretionary spending growth soared to 13.1%, and annual growth remained in double digits through the current fiscal year.

How could the President be so wrong in a nationally televised interview? White House spokesman Dan Bartlett said the President meant to refer not to discretionary spending overall, but only to the portion of it not attributable to military spending or homeland security. That would exclude well over half of all discretionary spending this year.

It is true that military and security spending have risen much faster under Bush than spending for domestic programs.

What the President meant to echo was testimony his Budget Director Joshua Bolten gave on Feb. 5 to the Senate Budget Committee:

Bolten: In the last budget year of the previous administration (2001), discretionary spending unrelated to defense or homeland security soared by 15 percent. With the adoption of President Bush’s first budget (2002), that growth rate was reduced to six percent; then five percent the following year; and four percent for the current fiscal year.

Even that is somewhat misleading: Bolten failed to mention that the growth of all discretionary spending was below 4% for six of Clinton’s eight years, as shown in our first table.

The figures that Bolten referred to are in table S-2 of the administration’s budget document. (Actually, the figures don’t refer to “spending” as Bolten said, but to amounts appropriated and legally available to be spent. The technical term for that is “budget authority,” sometimes called “funding.” It includes some amounts which are not spent immediately but may be spent in future years.)

Using Bolten’s own figures, FactCheck.org calculates that the discretionary sums contained in appropriations bills signed by Bush for the current fiscal year — including the $87 billion supplemental appropriation for Iraq — amount to nearly a 36% increase over Clinton’s last year.

Most of the increase has indeed come from military spending (including wars in Iraq and Afghanistan) and activities that the administration classifies as homeland security. But that still leaves a 16% increase in funding for other discretionary programs.

Discretionary budget authority: 3-year increase
   Homeland Security (non-Defense) 180.0%
   Department of Defense 52.5%
   Other Operations of Government 16.0%
Total, Discretionary budget authority 35.7%

Source: Office of Management and Budget, Budget of the United States Government: Fiscal Year 2005: Summary Tables Table S-2  — Discretionary Totals.

As Clinton’s budget surpluses have turned to deficits, Bush has come under criticism from all sides, liberals complaining about tax cuts and, lately, conservatives complaining about spending.

A Cato Institute analyst wrote Jan. 23 calling the increase “The Republican Spending Explosion,” and said discretionary spending increases signed by Bush — once adjusted for inflation — “are 3 of the 10 biggest annual increases in the last 40 years.”

A Heritage Foundation analyst wrote that “spending has increased twice as fast under President Bush as it did under President Clinton,” and attributed the spending surge less to the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001 than to a lack of “self-discipline required to balance fiscal priorities.”

But Richard Kogan of the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities says that even with the big increase in spending overall, Bush still is “modestly shortchanging, and maybe not so modestly in some cases, some domestic programs that have worked well.”

Kogan adds, “It’s true that Bush is a small spender, but only if you ignore the increases in military spending and anti-terrorism spending.”

And only if you consider a 16% increase over 3 years to be “small.”


Office of Management and Budget, Budget of the United States Government: Fiscal Year 2005: Analytical Perspectives and Historical Tables table 8.7 —OUTLAYS FOR DISCRETIONARY PROGRAMS: 1962–2009

Office of Management and Budget, Budget of the United States Government: Fiscal Year 2005: Summary Tables  Table S-2 — Discretionary Totals  5 Feb. 2004 :366.

Testimony  of OMB Director Joshua B. Bolten, “President’s FY 2005 Budget Request” Committee on the Budget, United States Senate 5 Feb. 2004.

Alison Fraser, “The State of Spending” WebMemo #398, Heritage Foundation Web site 21 Jan. 2004.

Veronique de Rugy, “The Republican Spending Explosion,” Cato Institute briefing paper 23 Jan. 2004.

Interview with President Bush” Tim Russert, Meet the Press. 8 Feb. 2004.