The Ripon Forum

Volume 43, No. 2

Spring 2009 Issue

Congress by the Numbers

By on December 2, 2015

A closer look at the record – and the rhetoric


In his best enlightened, post-pejorative, bipartisan manner, Lawrence H. Summers, President Obama’s chief economic advisor, dismissed Republican efforts to modify the stimulus package on Capitol Hill saying, “Those who presided over the last eight years, the eight years that brought us to the point where we inherit trillions of dollars of deficit, an economy that’s collapsing more rapidly than at any time in the last 50 years, don’t seem to me in a strong position to lecture about the lessons of history.”

The premise that recent history undermines the Republican’s economic proposals deserves examination by the numbers. In particular, the record of Republican majorities on Capitol Hill versus the Democratic majorities of the last two Congresses should be carefully scrutinized.

Let’s look first at deficit spending since Mr. Summers used that as the principal example of Republican malfeasance. When Republicans took control of Congress in 1995 after 40 years of Democratic control of the U. S. House of Representatives, the Federal deficit stood at $164 billion. Six years later in January, 2001, when George W. Bush was assuming the presidency, the deficit had been erased and the Federal budget had a $128.2 billion surplus.

Democrats have tried to make the case that the huge deficit turnaround resulted from Clinton Administration policies including the tax increases early in President Clinton’s term. But such claims ignore the fact that the budget projections in 1995 showed $200 billion dollar deficits for as far as the eye could see. Republican talk about balanced budgets was routinely dismissed as unattainable and even silly. The change of congressional power was the driving force that created balanced budgets and even surpluses within six years.

No one disputes that success. Mr. Summers and others want to focus on the eight years of the Bush presidency when Republicans controlled both the White House and the Congress. Fair enough. In January, 2007 when the Democrats took control of both houses of Congress, the Federal budget deficit stood at $161 billion. Yes, the surplus was gone; Republicans had engaged in too much spending and had paid a political price for so doing. But, in reality, the budget deficit was still slightly below what they had inherited in 1995.

With the Democrats in control of Congress and President Bush still in the White House, the deficits swelled out of control. By January 2009, the Federal red numbers had gone to $455 billion in actual 2008 deficit and to a projected $1.2 trillion as a 2009 projection.

What changed? The only change was the control of Congress and with that change of control, the renewed emphasis on tax increases, additional spending, and more regulation.

But deficits, despite Mr. Summer’s prioritization of them do not tell the whole story of the damage done to the economy by two years of Democratic dominance on Capitol Hill. We should look at some other telling data and measure Congress by the numbers.

In January 1995, the unemployment rate was 5.6 percent. In January 2007, when Republicans lost control of Congress, the rate had dropped to 4.6 percent. In other words, during the Republican era of congressional control, the GOP had achieved what many economists regard as a full employment level. In December 2008, after just 23 months of Democratic control on Capitol Hill, the actual unemployment figure was 7.2 percent with a projected January 2009 estimate of 8.3 percent.

“…during the Republican era of congressional control, the GOP had achieved what many economists regard as a full employment level. In December 2008, after just 23 months of Democratic control on Capitol Hill, the actual unemployment figure was 7.2 percent with a projected January 2009 estimate of 8.3 percent.”

So, how about measuring economic growth? In January 1995, the GDP was growing at a nominal rate of 3.66 percent. That rate had nearly doubled to 6.88 percent by January 2007. In October 2008, (the last official measurement) that same rate stood at a minus 4.11 percent, nearly a 10 point drop, and has gotten worse since.

But the real telling figure on whose economic theories work the best may rest with the Dow Jones Industrial Average. After 40 straight years of Democrats in Congress working with both Republican and Democratic Presidents, the DJIA was 3838.48 in January 1995. During 12 years of Republicans working with a Democratic President and a Republican President, the Dow Jones swelled to 12474.53 — more than a 300 percent increase. After just two years of Democrats replacing Republican control of Congress, the Dow stood at 8116.03 on January 26, 2009 — about a 35 percent drop.

So whose economic history in recent years is better? The numbers tell the story. Republicans can be faulted for failing to hold the line on spending and the use of earmarks to drive that spending spree during the period 2001-2007. They compounded their spending with a series of ethical issues and the result was lost political credibility.

But the Democrats who replaced them immediately began to talk down the economy. They made clear they intended to allow previously enacted tax cuts to expire. They sought to raise revenue with new taxes on investments and capital. They proposed increased costs to the economy with more regulation and expense aimed most devastatingly at the small business sector, for instance, the increase in the minimum wage. And, in the end, Democrats convinced investors that the future was not growth oriented, but growth agnostic. The result was that investors began moving their money to other safer and more tax protected instruments. Today we can measure, by the numbers, the two years 2007-08, of congressional economic performance and it is stunningly inept.

House Financial Services Committee Chairman Barney Frank (D-MA) faults Republicans for the economic mess that the country faces. He recently said on Meet the Press criticizing Senator John Ensign for his critique of overspending in the stimulus bill, “On the bloated spending, this comes from a man whose party controlled the federal government — House, Senate and White House — for six years.” But now we know the numbers tell the real story.

It is the last two years when Democrats controlled the Congress that the economy truly went in the tank. Larry Summers and Barney Frank may believe that recent economic history is on their side. But you cannot prove it by the numbers.


Robert S. Walker represented Pennsylvania’s 16th District in the U.S. House of Representatives from 1977 to 1997. He is currently the Executive Chairman of Wexler and Walker Public Policy Associates.

Print Friendly, PDF & Email


If you enjoyed this article, subscribe now to receive more just like it.

Comments are closed.