Presidential Candidates Would Raise Federal Budget Deficit

Published March 1, 2004

If any of the Democratic Presidential candidates ultimately has his way, the federal budget deficit will grow dramatically, according to a study released January 19 by the National Taxpayers Union Foundation (NTUF).

“Long on rhetoric, short on restraint,” concluded NTUF analysts after reviewing each candidate’s fiscal policy agenda.

“Despite expressing concern over red ink in the federal budget, every one of the eight hopefuls would worsen the deficit by billions or even trillions of dollars,” noted NTUF President John Berthoud. “The Democratic candidates for President have bashed President Bush’s tax cuts as ‘fiscally irresponsible.’ A fair reading of their agendas, however, indicates that the only reason they don’t like the tax cuts is that they want the money in Washington to spend even more.”

According to the President’s Office of Management and Budget (OMB), the FY2003 deficit was $375 billion, or 4.2 percent of Gross Domestic Product (GDP). The OMB’s Web site reports, “As a percentage of GDP, the budget deficit is expected to be cut by more than half by 2006,” from 4.2 percent in both FY2003 and FY2004 to 1.9 percent by FY2006.

This is in contrast to a FY2000 budget surplus of $236 billion. According to the OMB, “The growth rate of non-defense spending has fallen dramatically since the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks, while defense and homeland security spending recorded sharp increases.”

Berthoud and NTU policy analysts disagree with that statement. “Although there are many statistical interpretations of domestic federal spending, NTU certainly does not subscribe to the notion that non-defense spending has ‘fallen dramatically,'” said Berthoud. “In any case, it is about to rise dramatically as the Medicare prescription drug bill is phased in.

“While the spending record of President Bush has been very disappointing, his challengers seem only to want to spend even more. This is bad news for future generations who will have to foot the bill for all this government largesse,” noted Berthoud.

“All the Presidential challengers have to varying degrees disparaged the current size of federal deficits,” said study author and NTUF Policy Analyst Drew Johnson. “Yet, our examination of the candidates’ spending promises reveals an inconvenient fact: The deficit potholes they’re complaining about on the road to the White House would only deepen under their own policies.”

The NTUF study systematically examined the fiscal policy implications of the eight contenders’ agendas, using campaign and third-party sources (like the Congressional Budget Office) to assign a cost to each budget proposal offered by the candidates. For legislation the candidates have endorsed, the study also relies on NTUF’s BillTally project, a computerized accounting system that has, since 1991, tabulated the cost or savings of every piece of legislation introduced in Congress with a net annual impact of $1 million or more. The study included an analysis of proposals offered by Howard Dean, Dick Gephardt, Joseph Lieberman, and Wesley Clark, although they have since dropped out of the race.

According to the NTUF study,


  • If the policy agenda of any one of the eight candidates were enacted in full, annual federal spending would rise by at least $169.6 billion (Joseph Lieberman) and as much as $1.33 trillion (Al Sharpton)–a yearly budget hike of between 7.6 percent and 59.5 percent.



  • All candidates offer platforms that call for more spending than would be offset by repealing the Bush tax cuts (using even generous estimates of the tax cuts’ impact).



  • The eight candidates have proposed more than 200 ideas to increase federal spending, and only two that would cut federal spending. Those two proposals have been offered by Dennis Kucinich–the other seven have not made a single proposal to cut spending.


Johnson noted the study does not even take into account that the “temptation to spend more money” can increase after entering the White House. George W. Bush, for example, who campaigned as a fiscal conservative in 2000, has presided over a jump in federal spending of 23.7 percent since taking office. According to Johnson, even the most parsimonious of the Democratic Presidential candidates would have outpaced the spending run-up under Bush by 15 percent.

“During the 2000 Presidential election, the candidates traded charges of ‘fuzzy math’ and ‘risky schemes’ over each other’s fiscal policy proposals,” Johnson concluded. “Given the results of this study, many deficit-conscious Americans may be wondering if such terms are applicable to the 2004 race too.”

Peter Sepp is vice president for communications at the National Taxpayers Union Foundation. His email address is [email protected].

For more information …

Drew Johnson’s Policy Paper 148, “The Return of Fuzzy Math and Risky Schemes: How Presidential Hopefuls Would Deepen Deficits,” is available on the National Taxpayers Union Foundation Web site at Also available are detailed reports on the cost of each candidate’s platform proposals.