Both Republicans and Democrats like to blame the other for accumulating our large national debt, but surely there is evidence that swings one way or the other. There are a few factors that need to be considered, including the source of the data and who gets the blame when both parties may hold a share of government control.
I’ve posted on this subject before, but I think the topic deserves more rigor and analysis. My first post was in response to someone measuring debt based on presidential party affiliation, but I think a more analytical approach is necessary.
First, the data source. The best source I’ve found is the U.S. Treasury, which allows you to select a day or time period and calculate the exact national debt. Unfortunately, the Treasury site only stores data back to 1993, so for earlier data I’ve used a table found on Wikipedia back to 1977. The Wikipedia source claims to be the 2009 congressional budget. When using the Treasury data, I calculated based on fiscal year; it’s not clear if the Wikipedia table is calendar or fiscal year.
Next, I’m assigning party affiliation based on the year a party takes office and using the same year’s federal budget. Some will argue that, for example, Obama was inaugurated in January 2009 and had to live with a budget approved in fall of 2008. But the way the budget works, a fiscal year begins in the prior October and runs to the next September. So while President Obama was inaugurated in January 2009, the 2009 budget wasn’t approved until after his inauguration and technically began on October 1, 2008.
Debt by Party
Most analyses tend to report on the party in the White House, for example, claiming that Clinton was the only president in modern history to create a surplus while Bush ran up huge deficits when he gave tax cuts to the rich. But is the president really the right measure?
I would argue that the president is only one-third of the equation. All spending bills have to originate in the House of Representatives – that group of politicians who are most accountable to voters due to their 2-year election cycle – get passed by the Senate, and signed (or at least, not vetoed) by the president. So presenting the debt by presidential party only tells one-third of the story, as demonstrated below.
The image on the left makes it appear as though Republicans are mostly responsible for our national debt, but when the same data is overlaid with House party affiliation, the opposite conclusion appears to be true. Obviously, choosing one branch of government to blame distorts the picture depending on the branch you choose.
So let’s merge the party affiliation of the White House, the Senate, and the House of Representatives. If each is given equal weight – remember that each has to approve spending and each, in its own way, has a veto over the others – the picture becomes a little clearer.
I see nothing unusual in the debt trajectory by either party until 2001, which I’m forced to remind you, was when we were attacked by terrorists and we launched two wars in the Middle East. Even with that, I don’t see a clear winner or loser prior to 2008, at which point the Democrats began an unprecedented spending binge. But let’s get a little more analytical.
Official Score: Democrats 60.1% Responsible for National Debt
Since the charts aren’t entirely definitive, let’s quantify the national debt with an annual weighting by party across the White House, Senate, and House of Representatives. I’ve taken the data above, broken it out by year from 1977 up to July 17th of this year, and assigned credit based on the party affiliation of all three groups of politicians: 0.33 for the Senate, 0.33 for the House, and 0.34 for the president.
|Click to enlarge|
In the end, the Democrats are responsible for 60.1% of our national debt and Republicans are responsible for 39.9%. In the past, I’ve received criticism over this methodology by people who believe the president should receive a 0.50 weighting while the House and Senate should be weighted at 0.25 each. I disagree but, using that methodology, the Democrats remain 58% responsible for the debt, a change of only two percentage points (data table available by email if you want to check my math).
The U.S. has steadily built its national debt to heights never before seen in history. While we’ve had many peaks in relation to Gross Domestic Product, particularly during World War II and in the defense build-up during the Cold War, we’ve not seen such enormous debt as what the Democrats have accumulated the last few years. While some of it can be attributed to the 2008 recession, there is no denying that Democrats have always been big spenders and own 60% of the country’s debt.