Claiming to tackle spending, Washington will mistake target for
culprit next year. By disproportionately focusing on defense for
next year’s spending cuts, federal policymakers are ignoring the
real reason for uncontrolled spending: mandatory programs. The
result: the budget area that has shrunk relative to the U.S.
economy gets whacked, while the area that has exploded goes largely
There are two major categories of federal outlays: discretionary
spending, which is determined annually, and mandatory spending,
which once enacted, goes on indefinitely. Forty years ago,
discretionary spending was the slightly larger category –
equaling 10.9% of GDP versus mandatory’s 7.4%. Today, the situation
is reversed: in 2011, discretionary spending was 9% of GDP, while
mandatory spending was 13.5%.
Within the discretionary spending category, defense spending has
undergone an even greater relative shrinkage. In 1972, defense
spending was 6.7% of U.S. GDP, while nondefense spending was 4.2%.
In 2011, defense comprised 4.7% of GDP, while nondefense was
Today, defense spending is roughly just half of the far smaller
of the two federal spending categories. The culprit in Washington’s
decades-long spending binge is obvious, so guess what is
targeted for next year’s automatic spending cuts? That’s right:
Last year’s Budget Control Act required $2.1 trillion in deficit
reduction over a decade. First, there was an immediate $900 billion
in cuts — over 80% of which was from discretionary spending.
Second, once Congress failed to achieve the remaining savings,
further cuts will happen next year.
According to the Congressional Budget Office, 84% of these 2013
cuts will come from discretionary spending — and 61% of those will
come from defense spending. Thus not only will Washington’s
spending cuts come from the smaller and relatively shrinking
category of federal spending, those cuts will come
disproportionately from defense — the major area of spending most
rapidly shrinking relative to the economy.
To comprehend what is going on, imagine what the federal budget
would look like today, if mandatory spending had performed like
discretionary or defense spending over the last 40 years.
Since 1972, discretionary spending has fallen 17.4% relative to
the economy, while defense spending has fallen 29.9%. Over that
time, mandatory spending has almost doubled relative to the economy
– increasing 82.4%.
If mandatory spending’s growth had just kept pace with the
economy, last year’s federal deficit would have been just 2.6% of
GDP, instead of the 8.7% it was.
If mandatory spending had matched just discretionary spending’s
fall over the last 40 years, last year’s budget deficit would have
been just 1.3% of GDP — just slightly larger than it was in
If mandatory spending had matched defense spending’s 40-year
fall, last year’s deficit would have amounted to just 0.4% of
All these huge deficit improvements would have come even with
revenues at today’s recession-reduced levels. If current receipts
were equal to their 40-year average (roughly 18% of GDP) — instead
of last year’s 15.4% — the federal budget would have had a surplus
equal to 2.2%.
Such a surplus would have actually allowed mandatory spending to
grow by 30% relative to the economy — the same percentage by which
defense fell — and still leave the federal budget balanced.
If all these rosy projections for federal spending seem
unbelievable, remember: they are based on what has actually
happened to discretionary and defense spending — and which helped
absorb some of mandatory spending’s fiscal assault — over the last
What is really incredible is that discretionary and defense,
which are relatively shrinking, are the spending areas Washington
has targeted for more cuts. What goes comparatively unscathed is
the culprit of the government’s spending problem: mandatory
spending, which is only projected to get bigger as Baby Boomers
move into Medicare and Social Security.
By mistakenly targeting defense as the spending culprit,
Washington is proving the modern axiom that no good deed goes