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Tackling federal spending like jumping on Godzilla

With a new administration in Washington charging hard on all manner of issues, there is, once again, a vocal commitment by lawmakers for slashing  budgets and eliminating debt.

This is often a rallying cry of those who want to drain the swamp with the idea that MOST federal spending is funding weird programs no one wants and  anyone with common sense and basic math skills could roll up their sleeves and get us back into the black.

Unfortunately, the characterization is not the real world. It needs to be done, but don’t expect the cuts to come easily. The simple fact is you can’t cut spending without getting rid of  things some people want. We’re not going to put this house back in order by cutting a few arts grants, foreign aid and eliminating EPA staff.

Speaking from a pure dollars and cents perspective, wrestling a budget of $3,854,000,000,000 under control would be like jumping on Godzilla’s back (just look at the number of zeroes).

By far, the majority of federal spending goes to three areas: Social Security, Medicare and the military. In 2015, federal spending was $3.8 trillion; of this,

Social Security required $888 billion (24 percent of the total spending); Health took another $938 billion (25 percent of the total spending) with $546 billion of that going to Medicare, which provides health coverage to around 55 million Americans over the age of 65. The other health spending funded three programs -  Medicaid, Children’s Health Insurance Program, and $28 billion in marketplace subsidies for the Affordable Care Act.

Defense had a budget of $609.3 billion (16 percent of the total spending). [These figures are from the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities and closely resemble, but are not exactly the same, as those presented on PolitiFact. Online research of federal spending is fraught with inconsistent figures due to the manner items are categorized and with different accounting for discretionary versus mandatory spending.]

Interest paid on the federal debt was 6 percent of the total spending at $229.2 billion in 2015. Often you hear budget hawks cry that our servicing of the debt is destroying the country and, while 6 percent would be nice to spend elsewhere, it’s not exactly snuffing the life out of the country. The fact that the national debt continues to grow is the real concern. 

In 2015 two areas of allocated federal spending totaled four percent each: Veterans Benefits and Food and Agriculture. No other category in the federal budget was more than three percent of the total spending that year.

It’s important to realize how the budget breaks down: Social Security, Medicare and the military (areas that most people don’t want to see cut) amount to about two-thirds of all federal spending.

If those three areas are politically off the table, we are then asking congressional lawmakers to look at one-third of the budget to make the cuts we seek, a much more daunting challenge. But these smaller programs still spend billions every year – even microscopic cuts add up tremendously.

When it comes to balancing the federal budget, it’s going to take more than chopping away at areas that aren’t popular. The EPA has a budget that totals about one percent of total spending; foreign aid which comes under the State Department and International Affairs’ two percent and food stamps fall under Food and Agriculture grouped with a lot of other items, still only totaling four percent.

Confusingly, there are widely varying amounts cited for “welfare” expenditures. This discrepancy depends on what programs are grouped under “welfare.” Some figures will include Medicaid spending on non-elderly. Also included occasionally are items like Headstart funding and Title 1 grants, which do benefit poor families, but are hardly the cash handouts people think of when they hear welfare.

We certainly encourage budget cutting at the federal  level. No one is going to defend waste or squandered tax dollars. But we also encourage people to look at the details and be realistic that the challenge is nowhere as simple as it’s often portrayed.

 

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