Bush Beats Johnson: Comparing the Presidents
by Stephen Slivinski, Director of Budget Studies, Cato Institute
Revised data released during the summer by the
Congressional Budget Office (CBO) provide analysts the
ability to make side-by-side comparisons of the spending
habits of each president during the last 40 years.
All presidents presided over net increases in spending overall,
though some were bigger spenders than others. As it turns
out, George W. Bush is one of the biggest spenders of
them all. In fact, he is an even bigger spender than
Lyndon B. Johnson in terms of discretionary spending.
Comparing the Presidents
The increase in discretionary spendingóthat is, all
nonentitlement programsóin Bushís first term was 48.5
percent in nominal terms. Thatís more than twice as large
as the increase in discretionary spending during Clintonís
entire two terms (21.6 percent), and just higher than
Lyndon Johnsonís entire discretionary spending spree
A more accurate comparison accounts for how long
each president served in office and adjusts for inflation.
To adjust for the varying tenures of each president, growth
rates in average annual terms should be used for ranking
The results of adjusting the budget trends for inflation
and the length of time in office are shown in the figure to
the right. It compares the top five biggest spending
presidents in terms of nonentitlement spending.
Bushís record looks even worse by this standard. His
spending rate is much higher than Lyndon Johnsonís. In
other words, Bush has expanded federal nonentitlement
programs in his first term almost twice as fast each year as
Lyndon Johnson did during his entire presidency.
Explaining the Growth
Johnsonís discretionary spending spree was mainly a
result of increased military spending during the war in
Vietnam. However, Johnson also increased spending on
nondefense programs substantially.
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