A close examination of federal discretionary spending totals over the last 25 years reveals an unmistakable trend: under Democratic presidents discretionary spending increases were modest, and there were even decreases in some years; Republican presidents, by contrast, were more likely to preside over large discretionary spending increases usually in both defense and non-defense categories. These trends generally prevailed regardless of party control in Congress.Why? One reason is timing. Clinton, came to office just after the Cold War ended and military spending was plummeting. Both Bushes had wars with Iraq, and Bush 43 also had to react to 9/11. But there is a structural element as well.
The modern day “peculiar institution” in this country is the U.S. Senate. By design, the system gives unusual leverage in the legislative process to just one senator, and certainly the minority party. If the minority party sticks together and has at least 41 cohesive members, both sides have to be reasonably satisfied for the bill to pass.
With a Republican president, Democrats in Congress, whether in the majority or not, are able to bargain effectively enough for the final tally of appropriations (usually an omnibus in recent years) to exceed what the GOP president wants. With a Democratic president, Republicans have the leverage, even with a congressional minority. For example, Clinton’s budget requests were barely if at all exceeded throughout his presidency, regardless of party control in Congress, and Obama’s request numbers, even though his requested increases in some years were modest, were not met.
What’s the bigger lesson? In the spirit of James Carville: it’s James Madison, stupid. Don’t be fooled by the common focus on “presidential government.” Our separated system is more complicated than that and can lead to counterintuitive policy results, especially if one thinks that presidents are the main policy drivers. When it comes to spending, decision-making involves a complex interaction among both houses of Congress and the president.
One could argue recent history shows that if discretionary spending restraint is the goal, a Democratic president and a Republican Congress seem to provide the best result, with a Democratic president and a Democratic Congress (without 60 senators) second-best. You want to prime the pump? Elect a Republican president, who invariably will propose increased defense spending which, at the end of the day, will come with more domestic dollars thanks to Democratic leverage in the Senate.