Confounding President Bush's pledges to rein in government growth, federal discretionary spending expanded by 12.5 percent in the fiscal year that ended Sept. 30, capping a two-year bulge that saw the government grow by more than 27 percent, according to preliminary spending figures from congressional budget panels.
The sudden rise in spending subject to Congress's annual discretion stands in marked contrast to the 1990s, when such discretionary spending rose an average of 2.4 percent a year. Not since 1980 and 1981 has federal spending risen at a similar clip. Before those two years, spending increases of this magnitude occurred at the height of the Vietnam War, 1966 to 1968.
The preliminary spending figures for 2003 also raise questions about the government's long-term fiscal health. Bush administration officials have said fiscal restraint and "pro-growth" tax cuts should put the government on a path to a balanced budget. Bush has demanded that spending that is subject to Congress's annual discretion be capped at 4 percent.
But the Republican-led Congress has not obliged. The federal government spent nearly $826 billion in fiscal 2003, an increase of $91.5 billion over 2002, said G. William Hoagland, a senior budget and economic aide to Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist (R-Tenn.). Military spending shot up nearly 17 percent, to $407.3 billion, but nonmilitary discretionary spending also far outpaced Bush's limit, rising 8.7 percent, to $418.6 billion.
Much of the increase was driven by war in Afghanistan and Iraq, as well as homeland security spending after the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001. But spending has risen on domestic programs such as transportation and agriculture, as well. Total federal spending -- including non-discretionary entitlement programs such as Social Security Medicare and Medicaid -- reached $2.16 trillion in 2003, a 7.3 percent boost, according to the Congressional Budget Office.
White House officials have said the president's 4 percent annual growth cap was never supposed to curtail "one-time" spending requests, such as natural disaster aid or wars. But even if such emergency spending measures are removed, spending jumped last year by 7.9 percent, Hoagland said.