Nondefense Discretionary Spending on Track to Historic Decline

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Because of legislated budget cuts enacted over the past two years, spending in a vital but poorly understood category of the federal budget is now on track to decline by the year 2017 to its lowest level on record. This category, known as “non-defense discretionary” spending, is home to an array of programs, benefits, investments, and public protections—the bulk of which enjoy enormous popular support and provide critical services to the nation.

What is in this category of spending with the inelegant and painfully nondescript title that is now projected to dwindle to unprecedented levels? It includes nearly all of the federal government’s investments in primary and secondary education, in transportation infrastructure, and in scientific, technological, and health care research and development. It also includes nearly all of the federal government’s law enforcement resources, as well as essentially all federal efforts to keep our air, water, food, pharmaceuticals, consumer products, workplaces, highways, airports, coasts, and borders safe. It includes veterans’ health care services and some nutritional, housing, and child care assistance to low-income families. It even includes the funding for such national treasures as the Smithsonian Institution, our national parks system, and the National Aeronautics and Space Administration, better known as NASA.

In the past 50 years, federal funding for this broad category of programs and services has never fallen below 3.2 percent of our nation’s gross domestic product—the broadest measure of economic activity. Now, however, because of the spending cuts that have been signed into law since the fall of 2010, within 10 years, nondefense discretionary funding will be about 14 percent lower than its lowest point in the past 50 years—even before taking into account the effects of the large automatic spending cuts scheduled to begin in March 2013.

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