WASHINGTON – Federal programs have expanded faster during the past five years than at any other time since the 1950s, provoking criticism from conservatives and a widening rift among Republicans.
The spending growth spurt, measured against the growth of the entire economy using White House budget documents, comes at a time when Republicans dominate the White House and Congress for the first time in a half-century.
There are no signs that the trend is about to turn around. The House Budget Committee last week rejected a proposal to revive a budget rule called “pay-go,” which would require spending increases to be offset by spending cuts or tax increases.
This week, the House is scheduled to debate the $2.8 trillion budget for 2007, which projects an additional $3 trillion of debt in the next five years.
The Sept. 11 attacks, the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, and Gulf Coast hurricanes account for only part of the increased spending. Other factors: the biggest defense buildup in decades, domestic spending, and the rise of benefits for the elderly, poor and disabled.
As a result, Washington spends 20.8 cents of every $1 the economy generates, up from 18.5 cents in 2001.
“You take anything, and we’ve grown it big,” says Rep. Jeff Flake, R-Ariz., a leading critic of the spending spurt. “When you’re in control of the presidency and both houses of Congress, there’s just no stop on it. There’s no brake.”
President Bush’s defense buildup, which began before Sept. 11, 2001, dwarfs Ronald Reagan’s. It has risen nearly 50 percent above inflation in five years.
Medicare’s new prescription drug coverage is projected to cost an average of $80 billion a year over the next decade, adding nearly 20 percent to the health care program’s annual price tag.
Spending on social programs – such as aid to the poor, education and veterans health care – has risen faster than at any time since the 1960s.
“Budgeting is about making choices, and this period is one that shows a complete absence of that,” says Douglas Holtz-Eakin, a Republican who stepped down last year as director of the Congressional Budget Office.
The White House points to recent domestic cuts and the elimination of scores of small programs. It says Bush has led the effort to trim Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid.
The spending increase contrasts with the mid-1990s, when Republicans gained control of Congress and compromised with President Clinton on spending cuts that led to a $236 billion surplus in 2000.