Q: What is currently being debated?
A: Discretionary spending for FY2011. Defense and non-defense discretionary spending (see Exhibit 1) are projected to account for $1.373 trillion in federal outlays this year, or roughly 39% of total federal spending (Exhibit 1). But with the current fiscal year halfway over, the spending level is still uncertain. Congress has funded the government through a series of six “continuing resolutions” (CRs) while it has debated full-year spending levels. These short-term spending bills are not uncommon, and are often used to provide funding for a few departments at the previous year’s level while appropriations work is being wrapped up in Congress.
However, it is unusual to be operating under a CR halfway through the year. The most recent two CRs also included a combined $10bn in cuts, and lawmakers are negotiating additional cuts of between $33bn and $40bn from current levels to be included in the funding bill for the full fiscal year. As of this writing, differences have narrowed, but the exact amount and composition of cuts is still unclear. Without an extension of spending authority, either through full-year appropriations (the goal of this week’s fiscal discussions) or another short-term measure (a fallback in the absence of a full-year bill), the federal government would partially shut down until funding is restored. Funding expires at the end of April 8.
Q: Why is there such a great focus on non-defense discretionary spending?
A: Non-defense discretionary is only 12% of the budget, but cuts here are often a first step in fiscal consolidation. While discretionary spending cuts will not resolve the budget imbalance on their own, this segment of the budget is addressed once a year, creating a natural first opportunity for cuts. It also tends to have fewer vested constituencies compared with mandatory spending, which is comprised mainly of benefit payments to individuals. In previous research we have found that the level of non-defense discretionary spending is the most responsive to the debt to GDP ratio, probably for these reasons.
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