George W. Bush’s Budget Legacy Is Not Pretty

Posted January 16, 2009 at 5:20pm

Depending on when you read this, the Obama presidency either is just hours away or has just started. That doesn’t mean, however, that we are ready to close the budget books on the Bush administration.

[IMGCAP(1)]Just like a baseball pitcher taken out of the game with runners still on base, some of what is yet to happen will be charged to the record of President George W. Bush rather than the new person on the mound. As a result, the Bush numbers are not yet complete.

But even if it takes some additional time to get the final Bush stats, we don’t have to wait before characterizing the Bush budget legacy. The truth is that the deficit, national debt and other numbers that we arrived at because of Bush policies tell only part, and perhaps only a relatively small part, of the story.

At best, Bush’s budget legacy has to be characterized as a huge missed opportunity. No other president has ever been presented with the extraordinary chance that Bush had to change the country’s fiscal outlook so positively and more or less permanently. But Bush didn’t just fail to take advantage of that obvious invitation to make budgetary and presidential history — he missed it completely.

Because of the surplus that existed when he came into office and the even larger surpluses that were projected in subsequent years, the Bush presidency began with the very real possibility of eliminating almost all of the national debt and the government’s interest payments on it by about the end of his second term. Bush actually promised to do just that as he entered the White House, and then not only failed to make it happen but actually proposed, endorsed and supported policies that did the opposite by dramatically increasing government borrowing.

The substantial lower annual interest payments that would have resulted from eliminating the national debt would have reduced federal spending by several hundred billion dollars a year and been the equivalent of doing away with a very large federal department. In fact, the amount saved this year would have been close to four times what would have been saved had the Department of Education been eliminated.

The government borrowing not eliminated by Bush has set the stage for what will now be a series of far more difficult budget decisions than otherwise would have occurred for years, or decades, to come. For example, the extraordinary borrowing the government is doing now for the Troubled Assets Relief Program, AIG and a stimulus program wouldn’t be as much of a concern if Bush had paid down the debt as promised. Bond traders likely would be cheering the current round of borrowing as the first new supply of treasuries in several years went on the market. Instead, the worry now is that, coming on top of the federal debt that Bush chose not to eliminate, today’s flood of government paper at some point will be more than the market can or will want to absorb.

But if “missed opportunity” is the best that can be said about the Bush budget legacy, the worst is that it was colossal failure.

A number of very high-profile budget policies led directly to this conclusion. Start with the administration insisting on using the surplus for cutting taxes without ever determining whether a dollar of tax cuts would be better for the economy than a dollar of debt reduction. Move directly to tax cuts that were based on projected surpluses that never materialized (and were very likely overstated to begin with) and a very clear unwillingness to reconsider the tax changes when the actual budget results proved to be the opposite of what was projected. Continue to hundreds of billions of dollars in military and reconstruction activities in Iraq and Afghanistan that were never paid for with either spending cuts or revenue increases. Then add an expensive new Medicare prescription drug program and other entitlement efforts for highways and agriculture. As seasoning for this budget witches’ brew, add more earmarks than were proposed, supported and approved by any one president since George Washington.

Regardless of how you feel about the value and importance of any of these individual items, the Bush administration handled each one as if its budget impact was of no concern.

The Bush legacy also includes what might best be described as a “cone of silence” when it came to the budget. The administration had less to say about the budget and worked harder to avoid saying it than any other in memory. Bush’s directors of the Office of Management and Budget made relatively few public statements and his budget contained far less information than those from previous years, unless you think multicolored pictures printed on glossy paper are informative.

Bush even largely dispensed with what up until then had been a standard practice by previous administrations of making budget officials available to the Sunday talk shows the week before and after the proposal was sent to Congress. Not talking about the budget meant that others didn’t get the chance to do so either. And therefore, in spite of the decisions being made, there was no apparent controversy and, therefore, no issue.

Based on all of this, Bush’s federal budget legacy will likely be summarized in two ways. First, he left a budget situation for the next president that was far worse than the one he was given. Second, the current budget debate and the long-term outlook were made much worse because of what Bush did and didn’t do. We’ll all be dealing with this for quite some time.

Stan Collender is managing director at Qorvis Communications and author of “The Guide to the Federal Budget.” His blog is Capital Gains and Games.