Mark L. Hopkins: Looking at the national debt from a historical perspective
Well, here we are again. The government is in a partial shutdown and the debt limit problem is pending. Held hostage are many federal employees, multiple government functions and having enough money to pay our debts. Republicans say they must protect the public from the tax-and-spend Democrats, while the Democrats say they have an election mandate for their actions. Who is right?
One of my favorite politicians was Everett Dirksen, the longtime senator from Illinois. He was known for his long speeches full of sound bites for radio and television. In a budget debate in Congress, Sen. Dirksen said, “Well, a billion here and a billion there and the first thing you know it runs into real money.”
That is where we are today as a country, into real money and it isn’t billions, it’s trillions. The Republicans blame the Democrats and the Democrats blame the Republicans. Who is at fault? Let’s look at the history of our national debt. For clarity, let’s not deal with the Obama administration since it is not yet over.
Since 1950 only three presidential terms experienced reduced national debt. The terms were administered by Presidents Harry Truman in the 1940s, Jimmy Carter in the late 1970s and Bill Clinton in the 1990s. All three were Democrats.
Of the other nine presidents since 1950, three reduced the amount of deficit when compared to their predecessors. Those three also were Democrats.
The six remaining presidents had increased deficits that added significantly to the national debt. All six of those presidents were Republicans. The worst records belong to Ronald Reagan (+20.6 percent), George H.W. Bush (+15.0 percent) and George W. Bush (+27.1 percent). Of course, both Bushes were fighting wars and Reagan was fighting the Cold War, so one shouldn’t oversimplify cause and effect.
Who added the most federal employees? Ronald Reagan. Who spent the most per capita on welfare programs? Again, it was Ronald Reagan. Who had the greatest percentage of deficit spending? George W. Bush wins that honor.
Did the national debt grow fastest when both houses were controlled by the Democrats or by the Republicans? Actually, the debt grew faster when the Republicans held one house of Congress and the Democrats the other.
Between the Carter administration in 1980 and the beginning of the Obama administration in 2009, the national debt rose 40.6 percent, and 36.4 percent of that growth occurred while Republicans were in the White House. So much for the fiscal conservative label worn by our recent Republican presidents. And, the Republican label for the opposition party as tax-and-spend Democrats may be misapplied.
History tells us that if spending is to be held down, our government has a better chance if one political party holds both houses of Congress and the president is a Democrat.
When you began reading, is this the way your thought it would come out? Me neither.
Dr. Mark L. Hopkins writes for More Content Now and Scripps Newspapers. He is past president of colleges and universities in four states and currently serves as executive director of a higher-education consulting service. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.