All day, every day, television screens across the nation are filled with talking heads and politicians blathering about the dreaded fiscal cliff. None of them bother to make the point that a “deal” to avoid the fiscal cliff will do nothing to solve our long term financial problems, and all of them talk generalities, avoiding the unpleasant specifics.
Virtually every politician seems determined to cut non- defense discretionary spending, although none are willing to specify which activities and agencies they want to eliminate or eviscerate, and none seem to know much about what they are proposing to cut or about what has already been done.
Thus, a primer on a subject few of us know much about – and a word of warning that cutting such spending any further will likely have extremely unpleasant results.
About two thirds of the federal budget consists of mandatory spending. The remaining one third is labeled discretionary, and about 60% of that is defense related. Non-defense discretionary funding thus amounts to less than one half of one third of the federal budget, or about 15% in total.
And that small slice of the budget pie has already been cut to levels well below the CBO baseline estimates that were in place when the 112 Congress took office in January of 2011. Assuming the caps and projections now in place continue, and without considering the additional reductions mandated by the sequestration due to take effect at the end of this year, spending on discretionary non-military spending will decline by $1.5 trillion during the next ten years and will reach – at the end of the ten years -- the lowest level of spending as a percentage of GDP since record keeping began in 1976.
Well, you say, is that bad? After all, if this is discretionary spending, maybe we can save the money and no one will notice. Here is a partial list of what’s paid for by discretionary non-military spending.
· The Veterans Administration, which is already doing a horrible job of caring for our fallen warriors, and needs more money, not less.
· All Homeland Security Activities, including the Transportation Safety Administration (TSA), which includes the Coast Guard and everything else in the homeland security system.
· The National Institutes of Health, the Department of Energy, the National Aeronautics and Space Administration and the National Science Foundation.
· The Federal Aviation Administration.
· The Federal Bureau of Investigation.
· The Drug Enforcement Agency.
· The entire federal prison system, which is big since we insist on imprisoning a higher percentage of our population than any other advanced country.
· Federal aid to local school districts.
· The Food and Drug Administration, which already does a very inadequate job. Do you still feel comfortable buying hamburger knowing that FDA does not inspect meat packers who grind feces along with meat?
· The National Parks System.
· Federal disaster relief. What will we do about the next hurricane? Just leave people on their own?
· Federal low income housing programs
· Federal assistance to states and cities for clean water projects.
· And lots else besides.
These things are clearly important – and essential for many citizens. But since there are few lobbyists working the halls of power on behalf of projects like this, politicians know they can get away with cutting things we need while protecting things we don’t need – like more overpriced defense systems.
The cuts already made will leave the agencies and programs in this category $650 billion short, during the next 10 years, of what’s needed to sustain per capita service levels equal to what was provided in 2012. As programs and performance lag, we’ll all notice – but by then, many of the politicians now refusing to raise taxes and advocating these cuts as an alternative will be drawing their lifetime pensions and laughing at our collective foolishness.
Do you think cutting essential services make sense? I don’t think so, and I’ve asked my senators and representatives to send me a list of what they think they are cutting when they advocate less money for discretionary non- military spending. I hope you’ll do the same.