Congress? No.

Conservatives are embarassed by the way Reagan and the Bushes ran the debt up and out of control. So they have invented a cover story: The Democratic Congress did it. I have run into this lie dozens of times. So, I dug deep to set the record straight.


As the figure shows, Reagan and Bush senior got almost exactly the budgest they requested in each of their 12 budget years.

  • Reagan:
  • The first budget — passed by all Republicans and a few conservative Southern Democrats.
    • This increased the debt by [#$144 Billion].
  • The next 5 budgets — passed by the Republican Senate and signed by Reagan.
  • The last 2 budgets — passed by a Democratic Congress
    • Totalled slightly less than Reagan requested.
  • G. H. W. Bush:
  • Democratic Congresses under Bush passed smaller budgets than he requested in 3 out of 4 years.
  • These four Democratic budgets totalled  $14.6 Billion less than Bush requested.
  • G. W. Bush:
  • The first two budgets — Senate was split 50/50 and the House was Democratic.
    • Bipartisan and totalled $20 Billion less than Bush requested.
    • The biggest cause of deficits was Bush's enormous tax cut, mainly for the rich.
  • The next 4 budgets — the Congress was solid Republican.
  • The last 2 budgets — [#Bush vetoed] modest Democratic attempts at spending. 

In summary: Democrats controlled Congress during 8 out the 20 years. During 4 of those years, Democrats decreased the budgets proposed by the Republican presidents. Their total effect during those 8 years was to reduce Republican budgets by $17 Billion (which is only 0.2%).


  I finally tracked down exactly what Congress did. There were a few scattered cites on the web to a mysterious House report from 1992, but I could never find it., So a few days ago, I pulled together my best clues and wrote to the help desk at the Library of Congress. They nailed it in less than a day. Amazing. There is no such report, but they found a table with that name that is published annually and has all the budget results going back to the 1920s or so. (From the government printing office.xlnk.gif)

You can read  in Time magazinexlnk.gif  how Reagan outmanuevered the Democrats to get his first budget passed. This is the budget that ended the 32 year payoff of the WWII debt and sent the national debt spinning out of control (except for a brief turn-around under Clinton).


From the G. W. Bush White House: The Reagan-Bush Debt Explained

"The traditional pattern of running large deficits only in times of war or economic downturns was broken during much of the 1980s. In 1982 [Reagan's first budget year], partly in response to a recession, large tax cuts were enacted. However, these were accompanied by substantial increases in defense spending. Although reductions were made to nondefense spending, they were not sufficient to offset the impact on the deficit. As a result, deficits averaging $206 billion were incurred between 1983 and 1992. These unprecedented peacetime deficits increased debt held by the public from $789 billion in 1981 to $3.0 trillion (48.1% of GDP) in 1992." [emphasis added]

From "Historical Tables, Budget of the U.S. Government, Fiscal Year 2006." Downloaded from Page 5.



[=$144 Billion] The previous record, $90 Billion, was set the year before by Carter.  That was only $3 Billion higher than the record set by Ford.
[=Bush vetoed] WASHINGTON — President Bush vetoed another children’s health bill on Wednesday, effectively killing Democrats’ hopes of expanding a popular government program aimed at providing insurance to youngsters in lower- and middle-income families. (December 13, 2007)
[=PopNotes] Just hover over green-underline links above to see the "pop" notes.


G. H. W. Bush

The 1990 budget deal, in which President George H.W. Bush formally went back on his "No new taxes!" pledge and cut a sweeping deficit reduction deal with congressional Democrats. It ended up haunting Bush in varying ways for the rest of his presidency.

The '90 agreement was the product of more than six months of negotiations between Bush and a bipartisan group of congressional leaders. Deficits were soaring and Democrats, who controlled both houses of Congress, demanded that any plan include a significant revenue component. Despite his '88 rhetoric, Bush had always been more of a pragmatist and was willing to go along, and so were Bob Dole and Bob Michel, the pragmatic conservatives who led the GOP in the Senate and House.

The drama unfolded in two phases. In the first, a plan was drawn up that relied heavily on fees, excise taxes, cuts in social welfare programs, and new restrictions on tax deductions. The aim was to cut the deficit by $500 billion over five years, and the idea was for Bush to be able to say that he hadn't raised income tax rates on anyone -- and to keep conservative Republicans, particularly in the House, in line. But this ended up infuriating Democrats, who believed the deal put far too much of the burden on middle- and lower-income Americans. At the same time, conservatives in the House -- urged on by a rising star named Newt Gingrich -- still rallied in opposition. In early October '90, the deal went down to defeat in the House by a 254-179 margin. A majority of Republicans (by a 105-71 margin) and Democrats (149-78) opposed it.

This triggered a brief government shutdown and a sharp drop in Bush's approval ratings, which had been almost unnaturally high during his first two years on the job. With the midterm elections approaching, Bush then compromised further with Democrats, who had majorities in both chambers, agreeing to a plan that shifted more of the burden to the wealthy by raising the top marginal income tax rate from 28 to 31 percent.

A full-scale revolt from the right ensued, with conservative leaders branding Bush a sellout. When the new deal came up for a vote, the partisan divide on Capitol Hill was clearer. In the House, Republicans overwhelmingly opposed their own president's plan by a 126-47 margin. Democrats backed it by a 181-74 spread. It passed the Senate, where the GOP's ranks weren't as conservative, on a 54-45 vote and was signed by Bush in early '90.

To the anti-tax right, all of this served to confirm their long-held suspicion that Bush wasn't really one of them. He'd run for president in 1980 as a moderate Republican, deriding the supply-side theory that Ronald Reagan championed as "voodoo economics." At that time, Bush's wing of the GOP was still a force, but Reagan's was the future. By the end of the decade, supply-side theory had become GOP gospel, and Bush had reinvented himself as a true believer. This was the backdrop for his "Read my lips: No new taxes" proclamation at the party's 1988 convention. It was all enough to convince conservative leaders to put their doubts aside and to help Bush succeed Reagan.

But Bush, with the '90 budget, showed that he'd been faking it -- a fact that one conservative voice after another was happy to point out.

George W. Bush

Former Treasury Secretary Paul O'Neill was told "deficits don't matter" when he warned of a looming fiscal crisis.

O'Neill, fired in a shakeup of Bush's economic team in December 2002, raised objections to a new round of tax cuts and said the president balked at his more aggressive plan to combat corporate crime after a string of accounting scandals because of opposition from "the corporate crowd," a key constituency.

O'Neill said he tried to warn Vice President Dick Cheney that growing budget deficits-expected to top $500 billion this fiscal year alone-posed a threat to the economy. Cheney cut him off. "You know, Paul, Reagan proved deficits don't matter," he said, according to excerpts. Cheney continued: "We won the midterms (congressional elections). This is our due." A month later, Cheney told the Treasury secretary he was fired.

The vice president's office had no immediate comment, but John Snow, who replaced O'Neill, insisted that deficits "do matter" to the administration.

The economy, growing at an annual rate of 3.5 percent to 4.0 percent, is hardly in need of further fiscal stimulus. Yet the budget that the president sent to Congress last week promises deficits as far ahead as the eye can see--if the eye is practiced in reading these massive documents.  --The Weekly Standard (very conservative), Feb. 14, 2005.

"It [this new approach] will retire nearly $1 trillion in debt over the next four years. This will be the largest debt reduction ever achieved by any nation at any time. It achieves the maximum amount of debt reduction possible without payment of wasteful premiums. It will reduce the indebtedness of the United States, relative to our national income, to the lowest level since early in the 20th Century and to the lowest level of any of the largest industrial economies."
–George W. Bush, Feb. 28, 2001
President's Message to Congress