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Bush's fiscal legacy: bigger debt

Indebtedness of $5.5 trillion will limit future US spending options.

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Whatever happens over the next 16 months, President Bush will leave office having presided over one of the fastest accumulations of government debt in the history of the United States.

During his time in office, federal debt held by the public – Washington's equivalent of a credit-card balance – will have increased by more than 50 percent, to about $5.5 trillion. Uncle Sam will be paying interest on that sum for years to come.

Much of that borrowed money paid for military expenses after the 9/11 attacks – spending unanticipated when Mr. Bush took office. Measured against the size of the US economy, the public debt isn't far outside historical norms.

But US debt had declined during President Bill Clinton's last four years. Some budget experts say Bush has missed a historic opportunity to improve the nation's fiscal position.

"Federal debt – that's the Bush legacy on the budget," says Stan Collender, a veteran Washington budget expert and managing director of Qorvis Communications.

In recent weeks, Bush has been talking like a born-again fiscal conservative. On Sept. 24, he reiterated his stance that Congress needs to wrap up work on its annual spending bills – but without exceeding targets contained in the proposed budget Bush sent to Capitol Hill in January.

Individual appropriations bills that are too big will be vetoed, Bush vowed. He said that overall the Democratic Congress was planning to spend $22 billion more than he wants.

"And the $22 billion is only for the first year," Bush told a group of business leaders. "With every passing year, the number gets bigger and bigger, and so, for the next five years, the increase in federal spending would add up to $205 billion."

Under the plan submitted by Bush, the budget's long-term numbers would move into the black by 2012.

But 2012 is a long way off, and the next president will surely have priorities that affect that forecast, say experts. Meanwhile, during the Bush administration's previous years, the US accumulated massive amounts of red ink.

The budget deficit for fiscal 2006 was a record $248 billion. This year it has declined to $158 billion.

The Republican record

Presidents alone don't control the checkbook, of course. Congress, via the appropriations process, has a large say. But Capitol Hill was controlled by Republicans until 2006, and spending still went up.

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