In the past, I’ve gotten all choked up about the nondefense discretionary (NDD) part of the federal budget, as only a diehard DC wonk could.
There’s a good reason for that. This is the part of the budget that funds programs that are ever more important in an economy where the opportunities of less advantaged families are increasingly diminished by inequality (NDD funds Head Start and college assistance, e.g., Pell grants), stagnant earnings, and the heightened poverty driven by the Great Recession.
As my CBPP colleague Richard Kogan points out:
NDD covers all non-defense funding other than for “entitlement” programs, such as Social Security and Medicare. It thus covers a vast array of federal activities: biomedical and scientific research; veterans’ health care; most education; law enforcement and border patrols; national parks and forests; environmental protection; housing assistance; Head Start; job training; NASA; food, drug, workplace, and consumer product safety; and the Treasury, for example.
I suspect many of you will look at that list and see things we need more of. This is the part of the budget that provides folks with ladders to overcome barriers to success. As globalization, labor-displacing technology, unequal educational access, high and intractable poverty, disinvestment in neighborhoods and public goods…as all of these factors take hold, the barriers get higher so the ladders have to get longer.
But as the figure reveals, it’s losing rungs. This shows NDD spending as a share of the economy since the mid-1970s. It’s wiggled around between 3-4% of GDP since the mid-80s, and clearly spiked in the Great Recession as a result of the Recovery Act. But that Keynesian moment was temporary by design, and if you look at budget baselines back in 2010, before cutting mania took hold, you can see the NDD was slated by glide back to historical levels.
But then came the Tea Party, the debt debacle, the Budget Control Act, and the failed supercommittee (what a depressing sequence!). That led to the sequestration line you see headed for 2.4% of GDP in 2022. The President’s recent budget improves on that outcome a bit (and note, importantly, that unlike the new Ryan budget, he maintains the caps agreed to in the BCA).
The Ryan budget slashes NDD way below historical levels. And remember, it does this at the same time it delivers huge tax cuts to the wealthiest households. This is the work of someone whose analysis reveals to them that America’s problem is that the poor have too much and the rich too little.
Me, I’d have the line going up—if anything, I fear we’re going to need to devote more of our economy to programs that push back on diminished opportunity, languishing infrastructure, environmental protections, and so on…not less. But for now, I’ll settle for blocking the most egregious path in the chart and fighting for the least bad outcome.
Source: CBO and CBPP analysis.