I am trying to figure out if I want to open this with some jovial sarcasm, along the lines of "So, you want to trim your local federal budget..." or with a more serious opener as "The growth of the federal budget and attendant deficits is a troubling spectre for both political parties, and for the public at large". But in a way, we don't need an introduction, because people are talking about this for many many years, with lots of talkin' and not much doin' (those little apostrophes show that I am turning this into a populist issue, and will be adding some folksy wisdom in, perhaps.) The problem is, people seem to be a bit more shy about saying which parts of the budget in specific they wish to cut. This is because many people have conflicting interests: for many years, fiscal conservatives and national defense conservatives have been in alliance, which is a little bit like the Young People's Temperance Union hosting fraternity parties. That is why the phrase is often modified down to "hold non-discretionary, non-defense spending down to the rate of population increase and inflation", which is to budget control what Pabst Blue Ribbon is to Everclear. I am also not totally clear whether I am making normative or merely descriptive statements here. Even if I were to believe deeply that gigantic sections of the federal budget were to be cut, it doesn't really matter, because, as I describe, the politics of it are too tricky.
First, the Mandatory programs! The word "Mandatory" gets thrown around, a lot. I don't know what the actual legal difference between a discretionary and mandatory program is. Although the programs are often seen as being somewhat autonomous, I don't imagine that the US Congress has signed a pact in blood to support them, and if congress really wished to cut them, they could. The three biggest programs are:
- Social Security: this is money that gets paid to you when you are old or otherwise incapable of working. Social security outlays are gigantic: around 600 billion dollars a year. This is a gigantic piece of money, but for two reasons it is not politically feasible to touch it. First, the largest beneficiaries of social security are seniors, who make up a large and devoted voting bloc. Secondly, social security is funded (nominally) by a form of payroll tax, which currently pays in more money than it takes out. If social security was cut, the special payroll tax that nominally pays for it would also, perhaps, need to be cut, and that would leave the budget in worse trouble than when it started. In other words, although social security outlays are gigantic, there isn't much political will to cut them.
- Medicare is another program with gigantic outlays, that is financed much like social security, through a special payroll tax. It is also mostly intended for senior citizens. Everything I said above about the feasibility of ever cutting Social Security holds true and then some for Medicare.
- Other Mandatory Programs: This includes Medicaid, which is medical assistance to the poor, and many other programs. This is actually one of the largest targets, and I am surprised that conservatives don't call for cutting of this more often. This includes a few social service programs, such as food stamps, school lunches, and unemployment and the earned income tax credit, but also consists of pensions for both civilian and military employees of the government. In some ways, this mandatory part of the budget conceals the true cost of "discretionary" spending, since it is part of the cost of employing people. Some of the other mandatory programs are politically hard to cut, and for reasons that aren't always obvious. Food stamps and school lunch programs are also a type of agricultural price support, and are therefore supported by some disproportionately powerful agricultural states.
This closes out our mandatory programs, which for several reasons are not usually challenged, even by conservatives. So, lets take a look at some of our discretionary spending, department by department.
- Department of Defense is very expensive to run. Even when not engaged in a conflict, and its attendant promiscuous use of resources, building military equipment and keeping a force of people trained to use them is very expensive. Currently, the US is engaged in at least two wars, and on top of the normal defense budget, special outlays must be paid every year. But the defense budget is sacrosanct, for reasons both utilitarian and cultural. So with this big chunk unable to be cut, we will have to look at some other non-defense spending.
- The Department of Homeland Security: And here we come to the catch, because big parts of the National Security budget are in places other than the Department of Defense. The Department of Homeland Security is one of these, and it would be politically risky to suggest cutting its budget. Especially if something bad happens.
- The Department of State: another department closely tied up with national security, State is another budget that it would be hard to touch, especially because of the War on Terror. Not to be too cynical about it, but much of the "foreign assistance" put out by State, and many of the relations that it helps to found, are used to further US military objectives. So this is another large budget that probably can't be touched.
- Department of Veterans Affairs: Two of the things that are politically unpopular are to appear unsympathetic or unpatriotic. Cutting money to veterans is both. If you are a senator or representative voting to cut money for this department, be prepared to have a war hero in a wheelchair in your opponent's ads, next election.
- Department of Justice: Another department that is involved heavily in counterterrorism, and even without that, would not be popular to cut. If you are a congressperson toting against them,it means you are not tough on crime, and you can expect to have some campaign ads depicting grainy, shifty looking criminals who "weren't caught because you took away resources from the cops" etcetera.
- Department of Health and Human Services: This department has a large budget for a discretionary agency, and it is less national security related than the above departments. However, in recent years, medical preparedness for terrorism has become more of an issue. And voting against health in general is not that popular of a move. However, this is still one of the better agencies we've detected so far for targeting for cuts. The problem is, by this point the discretionary agencies are getting somewhat small. Although 70 billion dollars sounds like a lot of money, even totally abolishing this agency wouldn't put much of a dent in the federal budget.
- Department of Transportation: Another agency with a large budget with not too much of a connection to national security (although, of course, it still has some). Cutting its budget might be easy in the short term. Until a plane falls out of the sky or a bridge collapses. Transportation is also one of the things that people see most immediately, and will notice the lack of the quickest, especially in planes falling/bridges collapsing scenarios. However, with little else to choose, Transportation could be a place to cut money. Besides then, of course, you have to explain to Unions and Corporations involved in construction why they are not getting money.
- Department of Energy. This department is much more national security-oriented than the average person might think. The Department of Energy was founded as an R&D arm of the Department of Defense, and although it has branched out, it still has many responsibilities in that sector. It also has its own intelligence agency that keeps track of who might be developing nuclear weapons. So perhaps not a good target. Its budget is also fairly small, and after setting aside the national security sections, there isn't a lot left to cut.
- Department of Education: Another department that is a reasonable target for cutting, mostly because we are starting to run out of other options. Appearing to be against education offends middle class sensibilities, but depending on a congressperson's district, they can get around this by telling stories of a Swedish grandparent who came over here with one shoe and an eighth grade education, but still managed to work up to owning a broom factory.
- Department of the Treasury: other than the mandatory interest payments on the debt, the Treasury doesn't have that large of a budget, and most of that goes to a few basic programs, such as printing money. Also, the Treasury has many law enforcement duties, which are politically unfeasibly to cut funds for.
- Department of Labor, Department of Interior, Department of Agriculture, Department of Housing and Urban Development, Department of Commerce, NASA and the EPA. These seven departments together are probably the prime targets for budget cutters. There are some problems with some of them, such as national security concerns (for NASA) and regional political concerns (such as Agriculture in rural states). However, there is an even bigger problem: these seven agencies together make up only around 125 billion dollars a year, or a little less than 10% of the federal discretionary budget. So cuts would have to be made very deeply into
them to stop the larger growth of the other programs outlined above.
A much more involved, and numerical description of this problem could be undertaken. I didn't give the exact numbers for the departments involved, and a deeper look at the quantitative side of the problem is needed to understand it. But frankly, there is enough quantitative data out there to make anyone's head spin. I thought it was needed to explain some of the political reasoning, both justified and unjustified, about how things got where they are. And, thus, having concluded this, I am back to writing about comic books.