He spends too much to be one of us

BRUCE BARTLETT is the author of "Impostor: How George W. Bush Bankrupted America and Betrayed the Reagan Legacy," just published by Doubleday.

AS A LIFELONG conservative, I have to be honest: George W. Bush is not one of us and has never been. There can be no denying that he has enacted policies contrary to conservative principles on far too many occasions.

In my view, his greatest failing has been a total lack of control over federal spending -- to the point where liberal Democrat Bill Clinton’s administration is looking more and more like the “good old days.”

According to the Office of Management and Budget, overall spending has increased from 18.4% of the gross domestic product in 2000 to 20.8% this year, an increase of 2.4%. Clinton, by contrast, reduced spending from 22.1% of GDP to 18.4% during his two terms, a reduction of 3.7%. (This is really the best way to look at spending because it holds constant things like inflation that distort dollar figures).


Although much of the Bush increase is accounted for by national security and entitlements such as Medicare, the fact is that domestic discretionary spending has also risen. Education spending, for example, is up 137%, according to Brian Riedl of the conservative Heritage Foundation, and spending on community and regional development is up 342%. Moreover, Bush has repeatedly pushed for big projects, such as the manned mission to Mars that NASA can ill afford and that will come at the expense of basic science.

The number of identifiable pork-barrel projects that benefit particular states and congressional districts has risen from 958 in 1996 to 13,999 in 2005, according to Citizens Against Government Waste, a watchdog group. Spending on such projects has risen from $12.5 billion per year to $27.3 billion.

Bush, like most presidents, decries this wasteful spending. But unlike others, he refuses to use his veto pen to stop it. He is the first president since James Garfield, elected in 1880, not to have vetoed anything. But Garfield at least had the excuse of being assassinated shortly into his presidency. John Quincy Adams (1824-1828) is the last president to serve a full four-year term without a veto. And one must go all the way back to Thomas Jefferson (1800-1808), our third president, to find one who served in office as long as Bush without vetoing a single bill.

Bush’s greatest sin, in my book, was ramming the Medicare drug benefit through Congress by covering up its true cost and strong-arming principled conservatives into voting for it. According to the Medicare trustees’ latest report, the program has an unfunded liability of $18 trillion in current value terms. That means we would need that much in a mutual fund today, earning a return, to pay its unfunded liability.

Although there was a case for allowing Medicare to pay for prescription drugs, the rest of Medicare has an unfunded liability of $50 trillion. Bush’s action, therefore, pushed it up to $68 trillion in total. By contrast, the unfunded liability of Social Security, which he told us time and again last year was in dire financial straights, has an unfunded liability of just $11 trillion.

I and a growing number of other budget analysts now think the only way of avoiding a financial Katrina when the baby boom generation starts to retire is a massive tax increase. Future presidents may be the ones to enact it. But Bush’s policies will have caused it.