By David Wessel
The Wall Street Journal
After 25 years of covering the federal budget, I’m still amazed at the persistence of fiscal misconceptions. The distinction between fact and political opinion has been blurred to the point of invisibility. The choices—what spending to cut, whose taxes to raise—are fundamentally political; the facts are not. But the budget is now so sprawling—the U.S. government spent $400 million an hour last year—that grasping it in its entirety is impossible. The budget, I’ve concluded, is best understood in digestible morsels.
Nearly two-thirds of annual federal spending goes out the door without any vote by Congress.
About 63% of the budget is on autopilot. Congress passes legislation every year to keep the government operating, the phones answered and the National Parks open, but much of the money the government spends doesn’t require any affirmative vote. Social Security benefits get deposited. Health-care bills for Medicare for the elderly and Medicaid for the poor are paid. Food stamps are issued. Farm-subsidy checks are written. Interest payments are dutifully made to holders of Treasury bonds.
Congress can alter these programs, but if it does nothing, the money is spent. As Eugene Steuerle, an economist at the Urban Institute think tank in Washington, puts it: “In 2009, for the first time in the nation’s history, every dollar of revenues had been committed before Congress walked in the door.” The government’s total take was only enough to pay for promises that had been made in the past—interest, Social Security, Medicare, Medicaid and so on. For everything else, the government had to borrow.
The U.S. defense budget is greater than the combined defense budgets of the next 17 largest spenders.
About $1 of every $5 the federal government spent in 2011 went to defense, and about 20 cents of that $1 was spent on the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. In all, the U.S. spends about $700 billion a year on its military. That’s more than the combined military budgets of China, the U.K., France, Russia, Japan, Saudi Arabia, Germany, India, Italy, Brazil, South Korea, Australia, Canada, Turkey, the United Arab Emirates, Spain and Israel. The Pentagon counters that the U.S. also asks its military to do more than all those other countries combined—to keep sea lanes open for international trade, for instance, and to be prepared to deploy almost anywhere.