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Conservatives who plan to vote for Donald Trump say that Hillary Clinton is so awful that anybody, even Trump, is preferable. Without getting into the comparative defects of Clinton and Trump (disclosure: I’m #NeverTrump), I think it’s useful to remind everyone of the ways in which having a Republican president hasn’t made all that much difference for the last fifty years, with Ronald Reagan as the one exception.
First, here’s the history of the most commonly used measure of growth in the regulatory state, the number of pages in the Federal Code of Regulations.
We can fairly blame LBJ’s Democratic administration for the initial spike in regulations, and Jimmy Carter’s years saw another steep rise. But using number of pages as the measure understates what happened during the Nixon years, when we got the creation of the Environmental Protection Agency and the Occupational Safety and Health Administration, plus much of the legislation that gave regulators the latitude to define terms such as “clean” or “safe” as they saw fit.
After the Carter years, the slope of the trendline was shallowest in the Reagan and Clinton administrations (with the Clinton result concentrated in his second term, when a Republican House imposed a moratorium on some new regulations). The increase during the Obama years remained on the same slope as the one during George W. Bush’s years. And if you’re thinking about the Democrats’ most egregious regulatory excess, Dodd-Frank in 2010, recall that Sarbanes-Oxley passed in 2002, when Republicans controlled both the House and the Senate.
I should add that presidents don’t bear a lot of blame for failing to reduce regulation — their power to restrain the activities of the regulatory agencies is limited — but neither has electing a Republican president done any good, with Reagan as a partial exception.
Presidents don’t bear a lot of blame for failing to reduce regulation but neither has electing a Republican president done any good, with Reagan as a partial exception.
Turning to federal spending, we have to remember that presidents can’t do anything unilaterally to cut entitlements that are already on the books, nor do most Republicans want their presidents to cut defense spending. That leaves discretionary domestic spending.
Using the Bureau of the Budget’s historical budget table 3.1, I added up the line items for Education, Training, Employment and Social Services; Health (which doesn’t include Medicare); Income Security; Energy; Natural Resources and Environment; Transportation; Community and Regional Development; General Science, Space, and Technology; and Agriculture. I converted the totals for 1952–2016 into constant 2015 dollars of spending per capita. Here’s the result:
The Kennedy-Johnson years saw many new social programs, but the rise in per capita spending was only slightly higher than during the Eisenhower administration. The big spike in discretionary domestic spending occurred on Richard Nixon’s watch.
The graph gives Carter too much credit — the only reason his years show flat spending in constant dollars is that large nominal increases were swallowed by high inflation.
Then come the two presidents who bucked the trend and kept domestic spending under control: Ronald Reagan and Bill Clinton.
Then come the two presidents who bucked the trend and kept domestic spending under control: Ronald Reagan, of course. Real per capita discretionary domestic spending decreased, even though inflation after the first few years of his administration was low. And the second? Bill Clinton, throughout his eight years. Discretionary spending went up under both Bushes. If the cost of George W. Bush’s Medicare prescription drug entitlement were included, the rise during his administration would be even worse.
As for President Obama, he did indeed waste a huge amount of money on TARP and other failed stimulus programs during the depths of the Great Recession, but by 2012 his administration’s budgets for discretionary domestic spending were back on the trendline established by his predecessors from 1952–2008.
None of this is intended to say that the increases in regulation and in spending over the last half century have been acceptable. They are the traces of a metastasis in federal power that in my view has gutted the American project.
Nor is any of this intended to say that presidential elections don’t make any difference. But amidst the wringing of Republican hands about the awful things that will happen if Clinton is elected, a little historical perspective may lower their blood pressure just a bit. And they might want to reflect on what Trump’s rhetoric portends for both trendlines in a Trump presidency.
The American Enterprise Institute for Public Policy Research (AEI) is a nonpartisan, nonprofit, 501(c)(3) educational organization and does not take institutional positions. The views expressed here are those of the individual author.
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