Brawner: Who got us in this hole?

Steve Brawner

Who was the last Republican president to preside over a budget surplus throughout an entire fiscal year? When was the last time a Democratic Congress created a surplus? And when did a party create a surplus while controlling both the White House and the Congress?


It’s been a while in all three cases.

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Let’s start by explaining the terms. The federal government’s fiscal year starts Oct. 1 and ends the next Sept. 30. A budget surplus occurs when the government collects more than it spends during a single fiscal year’s time. Most years our government runs deficits, which over time have created a $17.5 trillion national debt – an amount equal to more than $50,000 for every American. If the government were to run a $100 billion surplus this year (which it won’t), the national debt then would be $17.4 trillion.

The last time the federal government ran a surplus was 2001, when it collected $128 billion more than it spent, according to the White House Office of Management and Budget.

That was President George W. Bush’s first year in office, so he’s the last Republican president to preside over a surplus, right? Well, not really. The fiscal year began Oct. 1, 2000, nearly four months before Bush was president. His predecessor, Bill Clinton, signed almost all the bills that funded the government for 2001. Bush can’t get much credit for something that happened under Clinton.

The federal government also ran surpluses from 1998 to 2000 under Clinton’s watch. During that time, Republicans were in charge of both the House and Senate, so those surpluses occurred under a Democratic president and Republican Congresses.

Before that, the federal government had run budget deficits every year since 1969. That means that, each year, the overall debt grew larger. Working backwards, those deficits occurred annually under Republicans George H.W. Bush and Ronald Reagan, Democrat Jimmy Carter, and Republicans Gerald Ford and Richard Nixon.

Fiscal year 1969, a surplus year, ended during Nixon’s first year in office, but at that time the fiscal year started July 1, 1968, so Democrat Lyndon Johnson was president for more than half of it. Democrats controlled Congress the entire fiscal year.

That was the last time a Congress controlled by Democrats created a surplus. It was the year the United States first landed on the moon, and it was 45 years ago.

The previous surplus occurred nine years earlier in 1960 under Dwight Eisenhower, who also presided over surpluses in 1956 and 1957, working each year with Democratic-controlled Congresses.

Eisenhower therefore was the last Republican president to preside over a surplus during an entire fiscal year – 54 years ago. I like Ike.

When was the last time a surplus occurred when a single party controlled both the White House and Congress? The surplus year of 1969 started under Johnson and occurred under a Democratic Congress. You could say it was that year.

However, the last time a party ran a surplus throughout an entire fiscal year while controlling Congress and the White House was 1951, when President Harry Truman and a Democratic Congress were in power. The last time Republicans balanced a budget while running everything was 1930 under President Herbert Hoover.

This is, admittedly, a simplistic analysis. The sample size is small. Since 1930, there have been only seven Republican presidents and only seven Democrats, and it’s relatively rare for a party to control the White House and both houses of Congress. Also, the fact that fiscal years don’t align with election years complicates things. Finally, budget surpluses and deficits are dependent on many factors a president and Congress can’t really control, including the actions of their predecessors.

Still, it should be clear that both parties share the blame for this $17.5 trillion debt we’re passing on to our children. Just getting rid of that Democrat in the White House or firing only those Republicans in Congress will not solve this particular problem.

Both Republicans and Democrats led us into this hole. So who’s going to lead us out?

(Follow Steve Brawner on Twitter @stevebrawner)


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