If Donald Trump succeeds in his bid to shrink the federal budget and the overall size of government, he will become the first president to do so in a long time.
Unless you count Bill Clinton.
Judged by the budget deficits they racked up during their tenures, the biggest presidential spenders in percentage terms since the mid-20th century were Franklin D. Roosevelt, Ronald Reagan, George W. Bush and Barack Obama. Read the full Journal Sentinel article here.
Roosevelt pushed deficits up 186% during his time, which included most of the Great Depression and World War II, and Reagan grew the deficit by 142% while spending the Soviet Union into history. Bush and Obama were no pikers, either, expanding deficits by 57% and 56%, respectively.
The presidents who minimally increased deficits during their watch were Bill Clinton, Harry Truman, John Kennedy and Dwight Eisenhower. Clinton left office with a budget surplus of about 1%; the other Oval Office occupants were well under double digits on their deficit performances.
Deficit spending and the size of government is less a partisan issue, it would seem, than a function of crisis and circumstance. That’s precisely why Trump will have a hard time selling his swamp-draining plan to Congress, not to mention many of the same Americans who elected him to office last fall.
Adjusted for inflation, federal spending per capita was largely unchanged through most of the 1980s and 1990s. It began to climb in 2000 and spiked during the recession that began in 2008 before falling back a bit in recent years. The primary reason for the increase wasn’t growth in federal discretionary programs – all the things Trump proposes to cut – but spending on mandatory programs such as Social Security, Medicare, Medicaid and debt payments.
As late as 1990, the share of federal spending on mandatory and discretionary programs was evenly matched. Today, two-thirds of all federal spending is mandatory, meaning it’s locked in by law — and the expectations of about 161 million Americans who live in households that get some sort of government check.
With the addition of Obamacare, more than half of all Americans live in households where someone receives government assistance. That includes Medicare, Social Security, Medicaid, Obamacare, farm subsidies, welfare and other forms of aid.
Many of those recipients voted for Trump in November and will now come face-to-face with his plan to slash major portions of discretionary federal spending while increasing the budget in select areas, such as defense.
The 15-year slide in U.S. productivity may get worse if Trump’s proposals to cut federal spending on research and development, education, rural development and small business programs survive the coming debate within Congress.
In Wisconsin, the effects of the Trump budget would be felt in cuts to key federal aid programs for college students, in the proposed downsizing of the National Institutes of Health by 20%, in farm program cuts and in the elimination of the Great Lakes Restoration Initiative.
The National Institutes of Health fund basic and applied research that drives innovation in medicine and related fields, and has helped support the growth of Wisconsin’s 30,000-worker life sciences sector.
The University of Wisconsin Board of Regents heard this month about the ripple effects of federal cuts in just one program: the UW Sea Grant Project, which supports research on the Great Lakes through the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. Elimination of $2 million in federal money in that single project would likely wipe out matching dollars from other sources and endanger efforts to protect the Great Lakes, which support a $62-billion regional economy.
Supporters of Trump’s discretionary budget plan insist it’s time to rebuild the military and to get tough about deficit spending while controlling the national debt. That alone will increase U.S. productivity, it can be argued, by enhancing national security and putting more money at work in the private economy.
What remains to be seen, however, is Trump’s plan for addressing the mandatory side of federal spending. Trump has previously vowed not to cut Social Security and Medicare, the biggest elephants in the mandatory corner of the room, and he has also pledged not to raise taxes.
If deficit reduction and debt control is Trump’s goal, he must count on uninterrupted economic growth and downsizing popular entitlement programs – not just cutting discretionary programs and beefing up defense. Time will tell on what side of the Presidential Deficit Gallery his portrait will hang.