Why Non-Defense Discretionary Spending Keeps Getting Cut
by Nick Schwellenbach, 5/23/2013
The biggest difference among the three budget plans that official Washington is currently considering is spending for non-defense discretionary programs, which includes education, infrastructure, food safety, environmental protection and other essential public investments the public says it wants government to continue to make. A chart created by the Congressional Budget Office – shows the differences between President Obama and Senate Democrats’ budget plans versus the House Republican spending blueprint.
At its current trajectory, non-defense discretionary spending is on track to hit its lowest level in 50 years. All three of the plans would shrink “All Other Spending”—largely made up of non-defense discretionary spending—further. The stakes for everyday Americans and the future health and vibrancy of our nation as a whole are huge.
Non-defense discretionary spending pays for infrastructure investments such as roads and bridges; scientific research into cancer treatments, clean energy, and more; the regulation of Wall Street’s financial behemoths, as well as industry impacts on worker health and safety, the environment, and other public protections; education; assistance to the poor and unemployed; the Justice Department (including the FBI); and much more. These areas are known as the "non-security aspects" of non-defense discretionary spending.
According to an April 2013 Congressional Research Service (CRS) report, “Non-defense non-security outlays, which ranged between 3% and 3.5% of GDP since the mid-1980s, were 2.9% of GDP in 2012.” GDP stands for Gross Domestic Product, the aggregate of our nation’s economic activity in a given year.
Non-defense discretionary spending also includes security spending that pays for assistance for veterans; the Department of Homeland Security; and the international affairs work of the State Department and the U.S. Agency for International Development. Some of these parts of the budget are fairly well protected; for instance, no one is proposing cutting spending for the Department of Veterans Affairs. Indeed, VA benefits were exempted from the sequester.
CRS states that “non-defense security spending, which rose sharply after 2001 and Hurricane Katrina in 2005, was 1.1% of GDP in 2012, about twice its pre-2001 level.” When paired with defense spending, this represented 5.3 percent of GDP.
Generally speaking, when people think of the “federal government,” they’re thinking of discretionary spending, even though it represents a minority of federal spending. CRS put it this way: “While discretionary spending, which chiefly funds the operations of federal agencies, accounts for about two-sevenths of federal outlays, it has been at the center of efforts to restrain federal spending.”
But as The Washington Post’s Ezra Klein points out “if you believe, as Republicans claim to, that the growth of government is really a story of out-of-control entitlement programs, it doesn’t make sense to spend the next 10 years cutting the non-Medicare and Social Security programs part of the budget.”
So why are Republicans targeting this part of the budget?
For one, Social Security and Medicare are extremely popular programs, especially among certain elements of the Republican Party’s voter base, namely the aging white population in suburban and rural parts of the country. The famous Tea Party-associated “Keep Your Government Hands Off My Medicare” meme is an example of why Republicans do not currently make Medicare a direct target of their cuts.
Second, many Americans do not know what federal programs they rely on or even that they come from “the government.” The Republican base may hate government in the abstract, but they value specific programs that shore up the quality of their lives.
Third, by cutting federal funding, the federal government will become less effective over time, which provides fuel for complaints about its incompetence. Currently formulated as the “anti-government” party, any government “failings,” even though those failings were made much more likely by a lack of resources, help feed the GOP’s message machine. A former Republican Senate staffer, Mike Lofgren, explained the strategy this way:
By sabotaging the reputation of an institution of government, the party that is programmatically against government would come out the relative winner.
A deeply cynical tactic, to be sure, but a psychologically insightful one that plays on the weaknesses both of the voting public and the news media. There are tens of millions of low-information voters who hardly know which party controls which branch of government, let alone which party is pursuing a particular legislative tactic. These voters' confusion over who did what allows them to form the conclusion that "they are all crooks," and that "government is no good," further leading them to think, "a plague on both your houses" and "the parties are like two kids in a school yard." This ill-informed public cynicism, in its turn, further intensifies the long-term decline in public trust in government that has been taking place since the early 1960s.
All of this represents a rollback for the role of government – and undermines the government’s ability to deal with real and growing problems. Jeffrey D. Sachs, an economics professor at Columbia University, wrote:
Older Americans often pine romantically for the good old days, when there was less income inequality, and the economy’s growth benefitted most Americans. This “golden age” after WWII to the early 1970s was the result of federal fiscal policies that stabilized and encouraged healthy, broad-based economic growth. If the federal government is unable or unwilling to play this role, we are likely to see slow growth, increases in inequality, and broad swaths of the population left further behind.