Columns » Ernest Dumas

Know your presidents

A multiple-choice quiz on the fiscal records of recent U.S. presidents.

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All the Republican candidates for president and all the party's congressional establishment want to take the country back to the halcyon days when Democratic presidents were not spending riotously, raising taxes, running up debt and bloating the federal government. Those would be the days of Ronald Reagan.

So it's past time for a little multiple-choice quiz on the fiscal records of the presidents of recent memory, based on historical records of the Department of the Treasury and the U.S. Office of Personnel Management. The answers will follow.

1. Which post-World War II president raised more taxes than any other? (a) Dwight Eisenhower (b) Lyndon Johnson (c) Ronald Reagan (d) George H. W. Bush (e) Bill Clinton (f) Barack Obama.

2. Under which president (or presidents) did Americans see their taxes reduced but no taxes raised during his (their) first three years in office? (a) Ronald Reagan (b) George H. W. Bush (c) Bill Clinton (d) George W. Bush (e) Barack Obama.

3. Rank these presidents on the amount that the outstanding national debt was increased during their terms in office: (a) Jimmy Carter (b) Ronald Reagan (c) George H. W. Bush (d) Bill Clinton (e) George W. Bush.

4. Rank these presidents on the average amount that federal spending increased per fiscal year during their tenures: (a) Ronald Reagan (b) George H.W. Bush (c) Bill Clinton (d) George W. Bush (e) Barack Obama.

5. Under which president did all federal tax receipts sink to the lowest share of the economy (GDP) since 1950? (a) Richard Nixon (b) Gerald Ford (c) Jimmy Carter (d) Ronald Reagan (e) Bill Clinton (f) George W. Bush (g) Barack Obama.

6. Since Jimmy Carter, which presidents increased the size of the federal government, as measured by federal employment, and which ones decreased it?

The answers:

1. (c) Ronald Reagan raised more taxes than any other president. The Tax Equity and Fiscal Responsibility Act of 1982 reversed many of the business tax reductions in 1981 and was calculated to raise $214 billion over five years. He (always with Congress, of course) raised gasoline taxes to produce $4.9 billion in 1982. His Social Security amendments in 1983 raised payroll taxes by $165 billion over seven years. The Railroad Retirement Revenue Act of 1983 raised $1.2 billion. The Deficit Reduction Act of 1984 raised $25.4 billion. The Consolidated Omnibus Budget Reconciliation Act of 1985 raised $2.9 billion. The Superfund Amendments and Reauthorization Act of 1986 raised $600 million. The Continuing Resolution of 1987 raised $2.8 billion. The Continuing Resolution for 1988 raised $2 billion. The tax increases only partially offset the revenue reductions from the Economic Recovery Act of 1982, but the combined effect of all the tax acts was to shift federal tax burdens from high incomes to middle-class workers through payroll and excise taxes.

2. Both (d) George Bush and (e) Barack Obama made only tax cuts. Obama's stimulus package gave income tax relief in 2009 and 2010 and a temporary reduction in the payroll tax rate (still in effect). He sought to restore Clinton-era tax rates on incomes above $250,000 for couples but failed and signed an extension of the tax cuts. If it is upheld, his health-insurance reform law starting in 2014 will raise Medicare taxes on high incomes and levy more taxes on pharmaceutical and insurance companies and makers of tanning beds.

3. Outstanding national debt was increased by (e) George W. Bush $6.1 trillion in eight years, (b) Reagan $1.9 trillion in eight years, (c) George H. W. Bush $1.6 trillion in four years, (d) Bill Clinton $1.4 trillion in eight years (despite budget surpluses the final four), (a) Carter $288 billion in four years. (The numbers include the accumulation of interest so that the total debt goes up even when the government runs a surplus.)

4. (d) George W. Bush increased federal spending 11.1 percent a year, (a) Reagan 8.6 percent a year, (b) George H.W. Bush 5.8 percent a year, (e) Obama 4.25 percent a year, (c) Clinton 4 percent a year.

5. Federal tax receipts fell to the lowest share of GDP under (g) Obama. For the fiscal year that ends this month, total tax receipts are projected to be slightly more than 14 percent of GDP. They have ranged from 17 to 20 percent of GDP for most of the past 40 years.

6. Carter reduced the federal workforce by 23,000, Reagan increased it by 310,000, George H. W. Bush reduced it by 534,000, Clinton reduced it by 626,000, and George W. Bush increased it by 298,000. The U.S. Office of Personnel Management indicates that the workforce rose slightly in 2010, Barack Obama's first budget year, owing to temporary hiring of tens of thousands of census workers.

All that suggests that in immediate political terms it doesn't matter what you do as much as what you say you did. And it suggests one last question: Which political party is historically better at promoting its message, even if it is a misleading one?

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