The budget process is complex and filled with arcane rules and complicated precedents. Over the past seven years, Congress has passed and the president has signed a number of so-called budget control acts designed to limit overall spending and reduce the deficit and the debt. As a result, the budgeting process became even more complicated.
The Budget Environment
Since the Budget Control Act of 2011, various budget control acts have placed caps on spending, meaning that Congress could appropriate no more than a specific dollar amount each year. And each year, Congress is supposed to appropriate a lesser amount than the year before – to the extent feasible. This is not always the case and sometimes Congress amends the law to allow for increases in spending.
The trend, however, has been to spend less; so much less that since 2011 non-defense discretionary programs have been cut by 16 percent. These cuts have impacted the Departments of Transportation, Housing and Urban Development, Health and Human Services, Labor, Commerce, Education, Interior, Treasury, Veterans, Agriculture, and Justice, and the Environmental Protection Agency – all of which are funded by the non-defense discretionary budget. If the president has his way, these departments and the programs they implement – that are important to cities, counties, and regions – will be cut by 25 percent, from $612 billion in fiscal year 2011 to $462 billion in fiscal year 2018.
Every effort is being made to change the direction of the conversation so that these additional cuts do not occur. And to be clear, this objection has nothing to do with the increases proposed to the defense budget. Rather they have to do with the fact that at some point the amount of money invested in non-defense discretionary programs may be too little to enable them to achieve their missions.
As House Appropriations Committee Chair Rodney Frelinghuysen (R-NJ) said, and I paraphrase, non-defense discretionary programs have been cut to the point where there is nothing left to cut without completely undermining the ability of these programs to carry out the mandate Congress gave them.
- In March the president introduced the outline for his fiscal year 2018 budget proposal. In May he will introduce a more complete version of his budget.
- Over the next month, Congress will develop its own budget resolution for fiscal year 2018, taking into account the president’s priorities and their own. The budget resolution developed by the House and Senate will be the framework for the appropriation bill or bills that Congress adopts for fiscal year 2018 (which begins October 1, 2017).
- Under current budget rules established by the 2011 Budget Control Act, funding for defense and non-defense discretionary programs must be about equal, and any increases or decreases in funding must be the same for both. A $54 billion increase in defense spending, for example, must be met by a $54 billion increase in non-defense spending; something that in Washington parlance is called
- Non-defense discretionary programs are funded through the non-defense discretionary portion of the federal budget, and represent approximately half of the entire discretionary budget. The other half includes spending for defense.
- The president, in his fiscal year 2018 budget proposal, would undo the parity requirement.
- The proposed budget would increase defense spending by $54 billion and decrease non-defense discretionary spending by $54 billion to offset the defense budget’s increase.
- Such a reduction in funding would devastate non-defense discretionary programs operated by the Departments of Transportation, Housing and Urban Development, Health and Human Services, Labor, Commerce, and Agriculture.
- Even without the president’s proposal, the sequestration rules established by the Budget Control Act of 2011 would require the Administration to sequester, or essentially confiscate $3 billion that Congress appropriated for non-defense discretionary programs in fiscal year 2018.
Talking Points for Congress
If you take the opportunity to meet with your congressional delegation when they are in their districts/state during recess (Saturday, April 8 – Sunday, April 23), tell them:
“We need a strong civil society where the connection between different people and groups is firm and vibrant, not brittle and divided. We need to defend against weaknesses within and enemies without, using the tools of civil society and hard power. We don’t have to pick one over the other.”
I would argue that the same can be said for the broad swath of non-defense discretionary programs: they contribute to a strong civil society and the choice should not be one over the other.
- Non-defense discretionary programs help us build a stronger, healthier, more integrated, and more secure nation. This is a critical point to make in response to the claim that we need to increase defense spending and decrease non-defense spending to ensure that we are safe and secure. Non-defense discretionary programs contribute substantially to national security by ensuring that our roads and bridges, water, and other aspects of our infrastructure are safe and secure; and our residents have the necessary skills to meet the needs of employers so that everyone is able to participate in civil society.
- Regional councils do not object to increasing defense spending by $54 billion per year if Congress, the Administration, and military services deem that such an increase is necessary to ensure the nation’s defenses and security.
- Regional councils object to cutting non-defense discretionary programs by $54 billion per year to offset the increase in spending for defense programs.
- Cuts to non-defense discretionary programs will result in:
- Substantial cuts across the board, to programs that are important to regions, counties, and cities within your congressional district/state;
- The elimination of housing assistance, CDBG, LIHEAP, and EDA; and
- Significant reductions in workforce development, aging, and other human services programs.
- The caps on spending and the sequestration requirements of the Budget Control Act of 2011 have made major cuts to non-defense discretionary funding. To date, non-defense discretionary programs will have been cut by more than 16 percent since 2010, making it increasingly difficult to continue to operate these programs in the way Congress and the president intended when the programs were enacted into law.
- We urge Congress to find a solution that, at a minimum, maintains parity between defense and non-defense spending, by upholding the requirements of the 2011 Budget Control Act.