Republicans are winning the battle over discretionary spending

December 11, 2013

The latest budget deal struck between Sen. Patty Murray and Rep. Paul Ryan was, in the end, a compromise between Senate Democrats and House Republicans. But which side got more of what they wanted? There are a couple of ways to look at this.

At first glance, the deal looks like an even compromise. First, we can compare opening bids. Senate Democrats wanted $1.058 trillion in discretionary spending* for 2014. House Republicans wanted $967 billion. The final deal will set spending at $1.012 trillion next year. That sounds like a straight-down-the-middle compromise....

...Democrats got more protections for domestic programs this time around. Let's look a bit deeper. We can split discretionary spending (which makes up about 30 percent of the federal budget) into defense and non-defense programs.

The House Republican budget originally aimed to preserve defense programs while cutting funds for everything else — housing, transportation, health, environment. The Senate Democratic budget wanted to protect those domestic programs. In the Murray-Ryan deal, Democrats managed to get a bit more of what they wanted there:


In the chart above, "BBA 2013" is the Murray-Ryan budget deal. As you can see, the final deal provides $492 billion for domestic non-defense programs — that's $77 billion more than Republicans wanted and only $14 billion less than Democrats wanted. Meanwhile, defense spending is less than either party proposed. That looks like a win for Democrats...

...But Republicans are still winning the broader battle over discretionary spending. Let's step further back. The discussion over the budget has been going on for more than three years now. Both parties have put forward a variety of positions. And Republicans appear to be winning this broader debate, at least when it comes to discretionary spending:

MurrayRyanbudget

Back in 2011, Paul Ryan, the House budget committee chairman, put out a budget envisioning that Congress would be spending roughly $1.039 trillion on discretionary programs in 2014. Democrats attacked that proposal for being overly austere.

But here we are nearly three years later, and total discretionary spending for 2014 is on pace to be below even that amount (although one crucial caveat here: non-defense programs will fare better than they would have under the original Ryan budget, so Republicans haven't won a total victory).

The chart above comes from Harry Stein and Michael Linden of the liberal Center for American Progress. They note that before the automatic budget cuts from sequestration kicked in, discretionary spending was set to hit $1.066 trillion next year. After sequestration, that was set to fall to $967 billion — a reduction that would have required steep cuts in everything from the FBI to road funding.

Congress managed to undo some of those cuts. But on the whole, the United States will be spending much less overall on discretionary programs in 2014 than either side envisioned three years ago.

Update: And here's an argument that my last point here is wrong — or at least overly simplistic — courtesy of Loren Adler.

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* As a reminder, "discretionary spending" is basically anything that Congress funds each year through the appropriations process. It doesn't include Medicare, Medicaid or Social Security (those are "mandatory" programs).

But it does include virtually everything else: defense programs and the military, Veterans Affairs, scientific research, housing, the FBI and environmental enforcement, among other federal programs. All told, discretionary spending makes up about 30 percent of the federal budget.

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Sarah Kliff · December 11, 2013