How Congress has given up two-thirds of its control over budgets

It’s always good to see anyone start to acknowledge the outlines of a problem – that’s the first step toward solving it. So I was glad that the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel’s “PolitiFact” desk said I was right in pointing out how much of federal spending has slipped out of the direct control of Congress.

The newspaper was fact-checking something I said to commentator Vicki McKenna on WIBA-AM in Madison recently (the part in question starts at about 29:00). Vicki was outraged that about two-thirds of federal spending is on autopilot – “permanently” appropriated, to use the exact word that is used when talking about federal spending.

She was right to be outraged: All that Congress debates annually is about a third of federal spending, the part called “discretionary” – programs for which Congress must spend – or “appropriate” – specific sums each year. These are thousands of federal programs, from the defense budget to NASA to the maintenance bill at federal courthouses. It totaled about $1,170,000,000,000 – that’s 1.2 trillion – in fiscal year 2014, which ended Sept. 30.

Congress doesn’t appropriate money annually for the other two thirds of the budget – both the interest it owes, about $230 billion last year, and so-called “mandatory” spending, about $2,110,000,000,000, or $2.1 trillion. Mandatory spending is mostly payments the government has promised to any individuals who qualify. Examples are Social Security, Medicare, Medicaid, food stamps, veterans benefits, aid for the poor – you can see the breakdown from the Congressional Budget Office here, on page 12. These are among the largest programs in the federal budget. Past Congresses set them up, one by one, and those laws generally give those programs access to however much money it takes. As the nonpartisan Congressional Research Service puts it (emphasis added):

Mandatory spending is controlled by laws other than appropriations acts. Such laws generally take the form of authorizing legislation. Authorizing legislation establishes or continues the operation of a federal program or agency, either indefinitely or for a specified period. Mandatory spending typically is provided in permanent or multi-year appropriations contained in the authorizing law, and therefore, the funding becomes available automatically each year, without further legislative action by Congress. In most cases, the authorizing law requires payment, based on a benefit formula, to an individual or entity (e.g., a state) if eligibility criteria are met.”

PolitiFact nitpicked about whether mandatory programs are really permanent – Congress can change the law. That’s true, as far as it goes. Starting in January, when the Republican Senate majority that voters chose in November at last is sworn in, it will be possible. But as you remember from civics class, bills don’t become law until the president signs them. So until President Obama starts taking seriously the unsustainable size and scope of the federal government, or until voters replace him with a president who will, the programs that make up two-thirds of federal spending really are permanently in place.

This is how we got to the point that our government is $18,000,000,000,000 (that's $18 trillion!!!) in debt. If Congress doesn’t vote on two-thirds of federal spending, it won’t prioritize it. The share of the budget that Congress doesn’t vote on annually has been growing and is due to keep growing:

This means that the representatives the people send to Washington will have ever less control over the money the government takes from the productive economy. Americans themselves will have diminishing control over their government, which will increasingly be an automated mechanism for taking money from some Americans and giving it to others – or rewarding politically powerful groups of recipients at the expense of our children and grandchildren, who will be stuck with still more debt.

This is no way to run a country or control spending. When Republicans are in majority at last in both houses of Congress, we must do what Democrats have refused to do – set a budget, then prioritize spending through a series of appropriations bills. Then we must begin reforming how Congress spends money. We need the president, and the people who will choose the next president, to understand the problem and work with us.

That starts with understanding that it is absolutely, entirely true that two-thirds of the federal budget is now outside of Congress’ annual control.