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   Jeff Jacoby
Jeff Jacoby is a columnist for The Boston Globe.

Copyright Boston Globe

July 20, 2003

At their national convention in Philadelphia three years ago, Republicans pointed with pride to their recent record of fiscal rectitude -- a welcome change, they said, from the Democratic record that preceded it.

"In the four decades from 1954 to 1994," the Republican platform declared, "government spending increased at an average annual rate of 7. 9 percent, and the public's debt increased from $224 billion to $3.4 trillion." Those were the profligate years, when Democrats usually controlled both houses of Congress.

"Since 1994," it went on, "with Republicans leading the House and Senate, spending has been held to an annual 3.1 percent rate of growth, and the nation's debt will be nearly $400 billion lower by the end of this year. The federal government has operated in the black for the last two years and is now projected to run a surplus of nearly $5 trillion over ten years."

Missing from the Republicans' recitation was any mention of the Democrat who had been in the White House since 1993. Didn't President Clinton deserve any of the credit for the spending restraint and budget surpluses?

Not according to Republicans, he didn't. In their view, they were the ones who slowed the federal spending train and forced Clinton to curb his big-government impulses. If he had had a Democratic Congress to do his bidding, they said, that train would have raced out of control.

So here we are three years later, with not only a Republican Congress but a Republican president, too -- and the federal spending train is racing out of control. The Bush administration estimated last week that the government will end the current fiscal year with a budget deficit of $455 billion, and will generate even more red ink -- $475 billion -- in fiscal 2004. Over the next five years, the public debt is expected to rise by $1.9 trillion. The administration now projects next year's federal outlays at $2.27 trillion, more than $400 billion higher than the government was spending when the president took office in 2001.

Where has all the Republican rectitude gone?

As any Republican politician will be glad to tell you, the GOP is the party of fiscal discipline. Unlike the wastrels of the Democratic Party, Republicans know that all government money is really taxpayers' money, and they take great pains to spend that money frugally.

Sure they do. That's why Republican George W. Bush, backed by a Republican Congress, is on track to become the biggest-spending president since LBJ..

In the first three years of the Bush administration, government spending has climbed -- in real, inflation-adjusted terms -- by a staggering 15.6 percent. That far outstrips the budget growth in Clinton's first three years, when real spending climbed just 3.5 percent. Under the first President Bush, the comparable figure was 8.3 percent; under Ronald Reagan, 6.8 percent, and under Jimmy Carter, 13.3 percent. You read that right: Bush is a bigger spender than Carter was.

To be sure, Bush's budgets have had to account for the aftermath of Sept. 11 and the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. But even when defense spending is excluded, discretionary spending has soared by nearly 21 percent in Bush's first three years. In Clinton's first triennium, non-defense discretionary spending declined slightly. If their budgets were all you had to go by, you might peg Bush for the Democrat and Clinton for the Republican.

The budget cycle Bush inherited in 2001 closed with a surplus of $127 billion. The deficits that now stretch as far as the eye can see are the result of reckless budget-busting that would have Republicans shrieking if Al Gore were president. To see such promiscuous budgeting come out of a Republican administration, with the consent of a Republican Congress, should outrage loyal GOPers even more.

Predictably, liberals and Democrats are loudly blaming the Bush deficits on the Bush tax cuts. But tax relief isn't leaking red ink all over the budget; spending is. In 2008, when most of the tax cuts signed by Bush will be fully phased in, they will reduce federal revenues by $177 billion. In the same year, total federal spending will be $494 billion higher than it is today. By the end of the five-year budget plan, in other words, spending increases will outweigh tax cuts by nearly 3 to 1.

Of course, if spending turns out to be significantly higher than the estimate -- as it usually does -- that ratio will be even more lopsided. And if the tax cuts stimulate economic growth and wealth creation -- as they usually do -- it will be more lopsided still. There's no question about it: Irresponsible spending, not tax relief, is the virus that's running amok.

From the pork-laden homeland security bill to last year's bloated farm bill, Washington's orgy of spending is bringing on the biggest deficits in American history. The gigantic prescription-drug entitlement making its way through the Capitol will force the budget even further into the red and the nation even deeper into debt. Americans count on Republicans to enforce, or at least invoke, the First Law of Holes: When in one, stop digging. But Republicans rule both ends of Pennsylvania Avenue, and the digging proceeds more furiously than ever. How will the GOP explain that at its next convention?

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