Federal spending growth: the real story

(Updated; see below.)

Yesterday Ray Nutting, a columnist for The Wall Street Journal‘s Marketwatch website, published something that quickly became a major topic among bloggers across the political spectrum: Contrary to what many people think, spending has risen more slowly under Barack Obama than under any president since Eisenhower.

Nutting’s analysis was fair and straightforward. He even took pains to attribute additional stimulus spending in fiscal 2009 to Obama.

Update: I originally wrote that “the fiscal 2009 budget had of course been passed under President Bush,” and as a reply below correctly notes, that’s technically not true. The final steps of the fiscal 2009 budget process were not completed until some weeks after President Obama took office. However, almost all the additional growth in spending in fiscal 2009 — which began October 1 of the preceding year — was the result of additional spending signed into law by President Bush.

Some conservatives have tried to spin the numbers to say something else, for example talking up the deficit, which is vastly more the result of tax cuts under Bush and Obama than Obama’s stimulus spending. (In fact, tax cuts made up a huge part of the stimulus.)

Now Politifact has published its own analysis with somewhat different results. Technically, Politifact is responding not to Nutting directly (though it references what he wrote) but rather to a slightly different comparison in graphic form that went wild on Facebook, juxtaposing a chart of federal spending growth under different presidents next to a quote from Mitt Romney’s website: “Since President Obama assumed office three years ago, federal spending has accelerated at a pace without precedent in recent history.”

Obama Spending Graphic From Facebook

Politifact notes that the figures given in Nutting’s column and in the Facebook graphic are not adjusted for inflation, so they not only provide their own, independently calculated growth rates under different presidents, they also give inflation-adjusted rates of spending growth, so low inflation, for example, doesn’t masquerade as slow growth.

The result? So far under Barack Obama, U.S. federal spending, adjusted for inflation, has declined at a rate of one-tenth of one percent a year. That’s a lower rate of spending growth than under any president in more than half a century. So I guess you could say the fine folks at MittRomney.com are technically correct: That level of frugality really is unprecedented in recent American history.

Incidentally, after correcting for inflation, here are how presidents since Eisenhower stack up (in a table shamelessly swiped from Politifact):


Fiscal year baseline

Last fiscal year

Average percentage increase per year

Johnson 1964 1969 6.3
George W. Bush 2001 2009 5.9
Kennedy 1961 1964 4.7
Carter 1977 1981 4.2
Nixon 1959 1975 3.0
Reagan 1981 1989 2.7
George H.W. Bush 1989 1993 1.8
Clinton 1993 2001 1.5
Obama 2009 2013 -0.1
Eisenhower 1953 1961 -0.5

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Federal spending growth: the real story — 25 Comments

  1. Wrong. The Democrat congress in 2008 took a pass on the omnibus budget for 2009. They passed a continuing resolution that took the budget out only to March 9, 2009. They new Congress in 2009 passed a budget for the rest of the year a week or so after that date. President Obama was responsible for the budget within less than two months into his presidency.

    • Not so. It’s true that the last step in approving the fiscal 2009 budget was signed by President Obama on March 12 (and I’ll update the post to correct that technical point), but I’m afraid what you wrote is highly misleading.

      Besides continuing resolutions, President Bush signed into law major spending bills, notably the bank bailout, that greatly increased spending for fiscal year 2009 (which of course began October 1 of the preceding calendar year, more than a month before Obama was elected and nearly four months before he took office). As noted above, Nutting’s analysis attributed to Obama rather than Bush the additional spending that actually resulted from policies introduced by Obama.

      • Wrong.
        You wrote: “However, almost all the additional growth in spending in fiscal 2009 — which began October 1 of the preceding year — was the result of additional spending signed into law by President Bush.”

        As my sources noted. The spending from the continuing resolution was kept at the baseline 2008 level up until March 6, 2009. Dude, I am not making this up.

        And it is a special kind of evil to consider money that was basically invested (TARP) as spending. As you are well aware. Most of that money has/will be paid back. A loan and yes I know it was not just a straight loan, but it was certainly not spending. A loan is not, and never will be spending, ever ever ever. Now I think you are doing this on purpose.

        • You’re not reading carefully enough, and apparently you’ve also managed to forget one of the biggest budget stories of 2008, namely TARP.

          • Freddy makes an interesting point that one could argue that TARP was an investment rather than spending. That’s debatable, but it’s legitimate to point it out, and I thank Freddy for the observation.

            The fact remains that the Congressional Budget Office’s Budget Outlook released January 7, 2009 (a couple of weeks before Obama took office) already shows the steep rise in 2009 spending previously mentioned, so again, it’s hard to blame Obama for something that happened before he was in the White House.

            And while Freddy might have missed it because it’s on the second page of the article, Rex Nutting does indeed attribute a chunk of increased fiscal 2009 spending to Obama rather than to Bush, saying that Obama “is responsible (along with the Congress) for about $140 billion in extra spending in the 2009 fiscal year from the stimulus bill, from the expansion of the children’s health-care program and from other appropriations bills passed in the spring of 2009.”

            Taking that into account, spending has still gone down in inflation-adjusted terms since Obama took office, something that hasn’t happened in decades.

            For the record, some of Freddy’s angrier comments won’t be appearing here because while I respect his right to his opinion, I feel no obligation to publish personal attacks and name-calling.

            Freddy assures me nobody reads my stuff, having been driven away by all my alleged lies, so apparently it’s just me and him here anyway. But if he’s mistaken and somebody else does read this, note that you can reach Freddy’s website by clicking on his name above any of his comments on this page. I’m sure it makes for interesting reading.

            Thanks for all your comments, Freddy, and I hope your day gets better!

  2. Sources —

    By a vote of 372-56, the House of Representatives Wednesday passed a continuing resolution (CR) to provide partial funds for fiscal year 2009 for those federal programs for which a free standing appropriations bill had not been passed, including the Department of Transportation. The bill is part of a package that also includes three of the 12 annual appropriations measures Congress was able to complete prior to the end of the fiscal year, including Military Construction and Veterans Affairs, Defense, and Homeland Security Appropriations Acts for fiscal year 2009, as well as a disaster relief package. Fiscal Year 2009 begins on October 1, 2008 and the CR provides funds from October 1 through March 6, 2009. Under the terms of the CR, programs will be funded at their FY 2008 level. The Senate is expected to pass the measure by the end of the week.

    On September 30, President Bush signed into law a more than $630 billion continuing resolution (H.R. 2638) that would fund the budgets of most Cabinet departments and federal agencies, including NIH, at current levels until March 6, 2009.

    ;Because of a shortened congressional schedule due to the elections, Congress was not able to complete work on any of the Fiscal Year (FY) 2009 spending bills before the end of the 2008 fiscal year on September 30. Consequently, Congress passed a measure that allows the federal government to continue operating through March 6, 2009, and will maintain funding for most federal programs at their current FY 2008 spending levels. In March, it will be up to the new Congress and administration to resolve funding issues and develop a funding measure for the rest of the fiscal year. In addition, Congress and the President will also need to begin work on funding bills for FY 2010.

    Sorry. March 6 not March 9.

  3. What has happened is this — Congress and this President has taken the stimulus of 2009 + the normal omnibus federal budget and set that as the new baseline. We have been getting a near $1 Trillion dollar stimulus every single year in addition to what used to be the regular federal budget.

      • Am I typing in English here? Yes. Yes. I am. If I wanted to say something, it would take me an additional 16 seconds to type out a sentence. Respond to what I wrote, not what you want to paraphrase as what I wrote.

        The process of budgeting and spending in the federal government is simply that. Budgeting and spending. Not cleaning up messes. Are you trying to be serious or just trying to make partisan hits?

  4. Oh and what year is it again? You are still, still, still, blaming things on a now long retired President? Yeah, who do you think is buying that the deficit this year is the fault of a retired President?

    • Mostly, yes, because that’s factually accurate. Tax revenues are drastically down because of the depressed economy triggered by 2008’s financial collapse, compounded by massive tax cuts under both Bush and Obama. (Federal taxes are the smallest percentage of the economy in more than half a century.) Then there’s the matter of two massively expensive wars. More on the details in a later post.

      • And highly partisan. A future Congress is not bound by the actions of a past Congress. They are only bound by the Constitution. Every Congress since the one that passed the Bush tax cuts has been free to raise taxes. That none has done so still is not the fault of a retired President.

        The deficit of this year, just like last year, and the year before that, and the year before that ad nauseam…. is the result of the U.S. government spending more than it takes in. It is a simple as that. So your blaming it on the actions a President took 10 years ago is highly disingenuous.

        • Federal revenues are down because of the bad economy that started under Bush and the tax cuts Bush insisted on. (I’m glad to see you acknowledge this was a mistake.) Federal spending is up from Bush’s two wars, spending increases initiated by Bush, and servicing the additional debt run up under Bush. (Recall that when he took office we had a large budget surplus.) So yes, Bush’s actions still have effects today.

          It’s true that in theory Congress could balance the budget by terminating spending on Social Security, Medicare, the national debt, and so on, or massively raise taxes in a depressed economy. It would be economically nuts, but they could do it…

          • Bush. Bush. Bush. Bush.

            And more lies and straw man arguments.

            DGG: Tax revenues are drastically down…massive tax cuts under both Bush and Obama

            I say that a Congress is not bound by something a past Congress did and can undo it at any time. Response?

            DGG: It’s true that in theory Congress could balance the budget by terminating spending on Social Security, Medicare, the national debt…

            Up yours with the constant non sequiturs

  5. Not as much spending as they don’t have as much money coming in. The unemployment is still above 8% tho it is really much much higher 8%. This is because all those people that have been laid off for years now no longer are in the system collecting unemployment but still have no job. Most have not gone back to work & still in Michigan we are losing our homes.

  6. Gary gotta remember yes during Bush we actually went to war however how soon we all forget it all started @ the tail end of Clinton.

    • Mike, I believe you’re referring to the U.S. reaction to the 1998 embassy bombings in Tanzania and Kenya. Specifically, since al Qaeda was closely associated with the Taliban then in control of Afghanistan (or most of it anyway), the Clinton administration began pressuring them to turn over bin Laden and other senior al Qaeda leaders for trial, and also I believe began giving covert aid to the Northern Alliance. In addition, Clinton ordered air attacks on some al Qaeda facilities in Afghanistan (and not just Afghanistan). That’s certainly a valid point, and for that matter you could look back farther in time as well, to the first Gulf War under President George H.W. Bush that set the stage for the more recent Iraq War and U.S. aid to the Muhajadeen fighting the Soviets in Afghanistan during the Reagan-Bush years. But in the context of federal spending none of those things was remotely comparable to the Afghan and Iraq wars.

  7. I also feel the large spending of 911s clean up along with the other disasters during Bush should not count we soon forget the things we should not (& yes there were disasters during Obama just not as bad). Going with my “how soon we forget” yes this is a debate but not the attacking of each other “United we stand” this is where the real debt is as over the years we (americans) have been driven apart because of the politicians & where they are taking society in order to weaken the people.

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