Which is the Party of Big Government?
Traditionally, conservative Republicans tout themselves as the party of less government and lower taxes.
They say the Democratic Party is the party that grows big government.
Is this true?
Is government getting bigger? And, if so, then which party is most responsible for growing it?
What does the term “big” mean?
This discussion will narrowly define “big” as the number of persons employed by government. The question of taxes and spending will be deferred to another time.
A little number crunching applied to Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) growth numbers since January 1960 provides some unexpected insights.
Is Big Government Growing?
Sounds like a silly question, but it isn’t. As of last month, U.S. government employment at all levels combined has grown 263% since January of 1960.
Yes, that’s bigger all right, but so is the nation’s population. The real question to answer is whether or not the growth of government is faster than population growth.
If government growth is faster than population then big government is, indeed, growing.
The left-side graph shows the total number of local, state and federal employees by month since January of 1960. The right-side graph shows the civilian population aged 16+ since January of 1960. That population has grown by only 211% since 1960.
For advocates saying government is not too big, this is the best case scenario. Government growth is just 52 percentage points more than the civilian population aged 16+.
But that is not the end to the story. If you factor in the effects of the Great Recession and the total U.S. population then big government growth is much more.
Nobody will ever confuse President Obama as a small government guy, yet the size of government has decreased under his watch. That is because of the Great Recession, not because of any conscious government policy to reduce its own size.
That means if we backtrack to December 2008 before the Great Recession a truer picture of government growth appears. As of December 2008 government grew 272% while civilian population grew by only 202%. That is a difference of 70 percentage points.
But its even more than that. The government serves the entire population, not just those 16 years and older.
According to the U.S. census bureau, the total U.S. population in 1960 was 180.67 million. On July 1st, 2008 – just before the recession hit – the population was 304.09 million.
Total U.S. population growth was only 168%. That puts big government growth 104 percentage points faster than population before the recession struck.
Based on the upward slope of government growth, no one party seems responsible. Both look equally guilty, except possibly a slight dip in overall government employment during the Reagan Administration.
Yes. Big government is growing!
Which is the Party of Big Government?
This graph shows only federal government employment from the BLS employer survey. It does not include state and local figures like the other two graphs.
Republican administrations are shaded red. Democratic administrations are shaded blue. It begins on the left with President Eisenhower and goes on up to President Obama on the right.
Federal government employment is the only place that the party of the presidency has direct control over growing or shrinking government. Lets look at that in more detail.
First, ignore the big spikes in federal employment. Those are temporary jobs to take the national census every 10 years.
Democrats get credit for both growing big government the most AND for shrinking big government the most!!!
By far, the largest percentage growth in the federal government came (at left) during the Kennedy/Johnson presidencies. That growth came mostly under Johnson’s Great Society expansion that included creating the Medicare/Medicaid health care programs. Federal government employment today is only slightly less than the late 1960s.
In a big surprise, under his watch, Democrat Bill Clinton oversaw the largest reduction ever in the size of the federal government back in the 1990s. The size of the federal government went down by about the same amount as it increased under Republican Reagan in the 1980s!
Republicans Nixon/Ford and both Bush 41 and Bush 43 kept government at about the same size. Carter increased the federal government a little bit.
President Obama did his level-headed best to grow the federal government against the headwinds of “the greatest downturn in the economy since the Great Depression”. He’d have kept going, too, if those pesky Republicans hadn’t taken over the House of Representatives in 2010.
Both parties grew the federal government; Democrats more
Considered at all levels of government – federal, state and local – both parties are equally guilty for growing big government.
That should surprise no one.
What is surprising is that Republicans, except for a little bit under Nixon, have never shrank big government at all. In fact, Ronald Reagan grew the federal government!
The best that can be said of Republicans is, for most presidents, they held the line on big government growth at the federal level.
In a surprise, under Democrat Bill Clinton the size of big government was reduced more than under any other president. Of course, he got a ginormous assist from Republican control of both the House and Senate and the Contract with America.
The huge jump in the federal government came from Lyndon Johnson’s Great Society Program where he crafted both the Medicare and Medicaid health care programs. Big government is only slightly smaller today as a result of the Great Recession than in the late 1960s.
Given Democratic total control of government back then, the Democrats of the 1960s get the nod as the party of big federal government.
However, with “The Affordable Care Act” just ramping up it’s an easy bet that upcoming growth will dwarf the 1960s.
With Obamacare just starting… you ain’t seen nuthin’ yet!