So there’s a popular meme/argument/school of thought that I’ve noticed coming from Democratic circles ever since I got involved in politics. Here it is in a nutshell: Republicans increase the national debt more than Democrats do, and contrary to popular belief, Democratic Presidents are more fiscally responsible than Republican Presidents. Here is a handy dandy chart that my left wing friends have linked to before when they make this argument:
When I see this chart I don’t know whether to laugh or cry. Put lightly, this is an incredibly ignorant argument.
Let me tackle the graph in two parts. First, the obvious, and less important issue with the numbers: The percentage increase under Obama cuts off in April 2011 (see 1/2009-4/2011 underneath his bar), just over 2 years into what should be an 8 year presidency, since he was re-elected in 2012. Yet he is already at 35% a fourth of the way in. Not too impressive.
Second, THESE ARE PRESIDENTS! THEY DO NOT CONTROL FISCAL POLICY!
Sure, they have input. They propose budgets that congress then throws out, or edits to their liking, but at the end of the day the House and the Senate write up, and vote on our spending and taxing bills. The President does not have the power to cut or increase either spending levels or taxes on his own. That’s the job of congress. They have what is called the “Power of the Purse.”
So wouldn’t it be better, or at a minimum just as useful, to look at percentage increases in the debt, by year, by congressional majority instead?.
Let’s do that for the time period in question in the above chart, 1981-2011:
During the Reagan administration, Democrats controlled the House all 8 years. The Senate had slight Republican majorities for the first six years, before Democrats won back a majority in 1986, but the GOP never had enough seats to avoid a Democratic filibuster. Overall, Democrats clearly had more power in Congress when the debt ballooned 189% from 1981-1989.
During the administration of Bush 41, Democrats controlled both bodies all four years, when the debt went up 55%.
During the first two years of the Clinton administration, Democrats controlled both bodies of Congress. However, Republicans won back both chambers in 1994, and kept them for the remainder of his Presidency. In 1994, the deficit (annual contribution to the total debt) was $203.2 billion. In the year 2000, the last year of the Clinton Presidency, after 6 years of GOP control of spending and taxes, we had a $236.2 billion SURPLUS (see the previous link for budget numbers).
For the first six years of the Bush 43 Presidency, Republicans controlled both the House and the Senate. The deficit peaked in 2004 at $412.7 billion, the highest it was during any of those six years. In 2008, the deficit was $455 billion, higher than any other full fiscal year under Bush. This is after the Democrats won back control of both the House and the Senate in the 2006 midterm elections.
Now here is where things get crazy – in 2009, the year Obama took office in January, when Democrats had already been controlling spending and taxation for 2 years prior and had just won even larger majorities in the 2008 elections, the deficit set an all time nominal record of $1.4 trillion. Many (rightfully) blame this on the recision. Tax receipts had dropped substantially, and the Democrats felt increasing spending would help “stimulate” the economy. You be the judge if that worked or not, but let’s not pretend this $1.4 trillion jump in the national debt is the fault of the Republicans, even if you choose to not hold Democrats responsible.
In January 2011, following the 2010 midterms, Republicans entered with more seats in the Senate than before, and a new majority in the House. They didn’t have as much control over spending/taxes as they did in the 1990s, but they had more than before, and could get their agenda on the table under the Obama Presidency. Since Republicans have had the chance to manipulate fiscal policy (to one extent or another) starting in January 2011, the deficit shrunk from its high of $1.4 trillion, to $483 billion in 2014.
It’s clear, to any honest person, which party is more responsible with the nation’s finances.