The Myth of Republican Frugality

Hank is a frugal Republican. He has been one since he could first say the word. His German immigrant father, Henry, taught Hank to work hard, never waste money, take responsibility, always tell the truth, never accept charity and always vote Republican. While Henry and Hank have walked the walk and been true to their values, Ronald Reagan and the Republican Party violated the unquestioning trust of many lifelong Republicans and started a spending and borrowing spree that is the driving force in growing the size of government over six fold since 1980.

Spending Change By Administration


Federal Govt. Total

Expenditures (Billions)

Administration Start of Term End of Term % Change Over Term Average% Annual  Change
Ronald Reagan (1981-1988)  $608  $1,137 87% 8%
George H.W. Bush (1989-1992)  $1,137  $1,488 31% 7%
William Clinton (1993-2000)  $1,488  $1,901 28% 3%
George W. Bush (2001-2008)  $1,901  $3,287 73% 7%
Barack Obama (2009-2nd Quarter 2012)  $3,287  $3,888 18% 4%
Republican     Democrat  Figure 1. Source: U.S. Bureau of Economic Analysis, “Table 3.2. Federal Government Current Receipts and Expenditures” [] (accessed [February 6, 2013])

Calculating Ronald Reagan’s totals, the “% Change Over Term” is the percentage spending increase from his starting budget to his ending one. The “Average % Annual Change” is the average of the annual spending changes during his term in office. The annual spending increases are calculated as follows: ((Current spending total – Previous year’s spending total)/Previous year’s spending total).

The table below displays the average annual spending increases graphically. When compounded over an eight year term, the difference between Clinton’s 3% annual average spending increases and Reagan’s 8% annual increase means a 28% increase in government growth during Clinton’s term compared to an almost doubling of the size of government during Reagan’s.

Frugality by administration
Figure 2. Source: U.S. Bureau of Economic Analysis, “Table 3.2. Federal Government Current Receipts and Expenditures” [] (accessed [February 6, 2013])

Republican excuses

When confronted with these spending numbers, Hank simply blames the Democrats in Congress. According to Hank, these ruffians force Republican presidents into spending increases they are compelled to tolerate.  Unfortunately, Hank isn’t able to explain how the Congressional Democrats become skinflints when a Democratic president is in office. 

Bringing this closer to home for Frugal Ron, the same trends continue. Former Wisconsin Governor Tommy Thompson, the failed Republican U.S. Senate candidate, increased spending at more than twice the rate of his Democratic successor, Jim Doyle while tripling the size of Wisconsin’s state government.

Annual Spending Increase by Administration (Wisconsin Governor)
Governor Spending Start of Term Spending End of Term Cumulative Spending Increase Annual Spending Increase
Tommy Thompson (1988-2002)* $10,898,836 $31,644,122 190% 7.4%
Jim Doyle (2003-2008) $31,644,122 $40,148,287 27% 3.1%
* Lt. Governor Scott McCallum finished Thompson’s term    
Figure 3. Source: “Wisconsin Blue Books” (Official state government publication)  


A Republican fiscal watchdog
A Republican fiscal watchdog

Republicans have a Jekyll and Hyde split personality. When they are out of office, they are wise protectors of the government’s purse strings. Elect them to the presidency or governorship and they turn into spend crazy monsters.

The future…

While today’s Republican/Tea Party candidates promise to carry out frugality and dramatically cut government spending, Frugal Ron has his doubts. Federal government “Total Expenditures” in 2012 equaled $3.9 trillion. Since 1981, Republican Presidents  increased spending $2.3 trillion. In other words, Republican spending increases over the last thirty years make up over half of todays federal government budget. Is it realistic to expect Republicans will cut programs and spending they worked hard to create for their core constituencies?

Borrowing is much the same story, accept President Barack Obama inexplicably decided to adopt the tax cut policies he so successfully campaigned against  Even worse, he out-Republicaned the Republicans by broadly expanding their tax cuts for the wealthy. Obama’s huge deficits aren’t due to his small (by Republican standards) spending increases, they result from his tax cuts.

Borrowing by Administration






Total Debt /Term

Average Debt/Year

Ronald Reagan  $(1,426)  $(178)  
George H.W. Bush  $(956)  $(239)
William Clinton  $(620)  $(78)
George W. Bush  $(2764)  $(345)
Barack Obama*  $(4,342)  $(1,447)
Figure 4. Source:U.S. Bureau of Economic Analysis, “Table 3.2. Federal Government Current Receipts and Expenditures” [] (accessed [February 6, 2013]).

* Debt information only available through 2011. Obama’s totals are for the first three years of his administration.

Former Wisconsin Governor Jim Doyle(D), a frugal man
Former Wisconsin Governor Jim Doyle (D). A frugal man.


Republicans continually strive to get people to believe if the wealthy pay less taxes, they will build factories and create jobs. When rich people pay lower taxes, they do the logical thing any of us would do; they spend more money on themselves. Business owners decide to start new businesses based on profitability projections where tax rates are just one of many factors.

It is all about hype…

It is a marketer’s dream to have a brand so strong owners can violate its promise over-and-over without customers (voters) even noticing. So how do Republicans get away with raising spending 2-3 times the rate of Democrats, borrow money like there’s no tomorrow and still get referred to as “Conservatives” everywhere except on this site?

Perhaps, part of the reason is most U.S. voters want conservative leadership and frugality. Republicans give the correct sound bytes. But, if they get elected, they spend billions of borrowed dollars on defense contractors, pharmaceutical companies, old-line energy companies, farmers and other core constituencies.

Consistently, at the end of every Republican presidency, we are left with huge increases in government spending and debt. This is not frugal fiscal policy and is certainly not the true conservatism Henry raised Hank to vote for. 2012

Updated February 6, 2013


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