The truth about Ronald Reagan

By Tom Quiner

Note how federal revenues increase during the Reagan years. Deficits were caused by excessive Congressional spending.

Revisionists love to distort Ronald Reagan’s record at the same time they massage the Obama record.

In this presidential cycle with Obama deficits on full display, Reagan’s record is invoked to make the case that Obama’s profligacy isn’t so bad after all.

One of the most tired diatribes has been the one that says “Reagan drove up the deficits and it took Clinton to fix it.”

I will quickly say that I liked many things Mr. Reagan did, but not all.

I will quickly say that I disliked many things Mr. Clinton did, but not all.

But regarding the deficit, I would simply say that Mr. Reagan submitted 8 budgets to Congress.  They spent more than he asked for 7 times.  Had they gone with his 8 budget requests, we would have had a budget surplus in 1989.

Congress controls the purse strings, not the President. So credit for the modest fiscal restraint of the 90s belongs to the Republican-controlled Congress in large measure. Spending bills originate in the House, so Speaker O’Neill deserves a fair share of blame for the 80’s deficits, just as Speaker Gingrich deserves some kudos for the balanced budget in the 90s, just as Speakers Hastert and Pelosi deserve some blame for the deficits of the 2000s.

One of the common myths associated with the Reagan Presidency is the assertion that cuts in marginal income tax rates were responsible for the growing deficits. As Quiner’s Diner has pointed out before, the data suggests otherwise. After all, federal revenues increased by 28 percent adjusted for inflation between 1980 and 1990.

In other words, the government had the revenue, the problem was they spent too much. In the same time frame, federal expenditures increased 35.8 percent when adjusted for inflation. It’s all spelled out in the graph above.

We had a spending problem, not a revenue problem.

Some things never change.

It is important to repeat data of this nature in light of ongoing efforts to distort the Reagan record.


  1. Shawn Pavlik on November 6, 2015 at 9:00 am

    So….How much of Obama’s deficits are an indicator of failed Republican leadership in the House and Senate? They aren’t as high of deficits as the first 2 years when democrats had control of everything and pushed through massive spending bills, but they are still larger deficits than we saw under Pelosi and Bush.

    • quinersdiner on November 6, 2015 at 12:22 pm

      Democrats have controlled the government until a year ago under Obama. Deficits spikes are on the shoulders of the Democrats.