The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

The challenge of cutting the federal budget, visualized

Dramatic clouds hang over the U.S. Capitol on Saturday as Congress faces a debt-limit crisis in Washington. (Bill O'Leary/The Washington Post)
5 min

Humans simply aren’t programmed for calculations involving 12 digits. Our system of math is designed around 10 digits — our fingers — and our ancestral ability to tally large sums extended not much past that. I’m sure historians and cultural anthropologists will offer more-nuanced assessments of that generalization, but it’s certainly the case that people aren’t well adapted to easily grasp a million, much less a million millions.

This idea extends into other realms. We understand our household finances (often only tenuously) and our household budgets, but it’s hard to fathom an economic system at the scale of the federal government. Remember when Mega Millions hit $1.5 billion and everyone was salivating over it? That’s about 0.03 percent of what the federal government was projected to take in this year. Remember how you tried to think of how to spend that money? Well, the government spends that amount of money in a bit over two hours.

Of course, the government also consistently spends more than it takes in. And so the new House Republican majority (many members of which voted in 2017 to cut tax rates) has declared that it will try to reduce spending to make incoming and outgoing dollars match up. I mean, heck, we can balance a household budget. How hard can it be to balance a budget that’s 86.5 million times as large? We’re humans! We can figure this out.

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This inherent challenge is exacerbated by the underlying politics. It’s easy to pick a few places to cut back in your own budget because your budget includes relatively few discrete items. Ax Netflix and you can keep your subscription to The Washington Post, a good trade-off. That sort of thing.

But the federal government has many very large buckets of spending and, in those buckets, millions of individual line items. What’s more, many of those buckets are ones that politicians are wary of talking about as potential targets for reduction. Even if there are valid places to reduce expenses on defense, for example, the politics of “cut spending on defense” introduces a friction that makes that difficult. I mean, this is a political world in which an increase to military spending last year was cast as a reduction simply because the increase was considered insufficiently large.

The Committee for a Responsible Federal Budget (CRFB) produced an interesting analysis this month looking at how moving certain buckets out of consideration for reductions made the challenge of cutting spending that much more difficult. To balance the budget without increasing revenue — mostly meaning taxes — you’d need to trim the federal budget by 26 percent over the next decade. If you exclude defense or veterans programs from cuts, you need to eliminate a third of what’s left. Take out Social Security and Medicare, too, and suddenly you have to cut basically everything.

That chart is pretty clear, but it’s worth looking at the budgetary picture with a bit more specificity.

So, using projections from the White House Office of Management and Budget, here’s where the federal government was expected to spend money this year.

Immediately, you can see that five things eat up a lot of it: defense, Social Security, health, income security and Medicare. Combined, those account for 77 percent of all federal spending.

But, again, the government isn’t projected to raise enough to cover all of that spending. The gap between expected receipts and outlays (as the vernacular has it) is here: The black section shows how much of the full pie isn’t covered with incoming revenue.

Again, this doesn’t mean you have to cut spending if you want to balance the budget! You can raise revenue as well, but since we’re talking about the politics of all of this (and a Republican House!), let’s just consider that question alone.

Following the CRFB’s estimates, then, let’s declare some things off limits: no cuts to Medicare, Social Security, defense or veterans. I also included interest payments here (from which I subtracted offsets in the OMB data) since that interest on loan debt will need to be paid. Now we have a blue, don’t-touch section and an orange, cuttable one.

And then we overlay that black slice.

The buckets of spending are arrayed randomly, but you get the point: Only the unobscured part of the orange section would survive these budget cuts.

There have been rumblings among House Republicans that perhaps Social Security and Medicare aren’t as sacrosanct as our assumptions above would suggest. But it is unquestionably much harder for Republicans to talk about cutting those programs than it used to be because so much of the party is in line to receive their benefits.

According to Washington Post analysis of voter registration data, nearly two-thirds of Republicans are at least 50 years old, with almost a third already at retirement age. Is this a constituency that’s going to be eager to see reductions in Social Security?

Again, it’s not that there are necessarily no viable cuts to be made in Social Security, things that don’t affect what’s received by program participants at the back end. But, politically, a call to “cut Social Security spending” is potent, particularly among the older Americans who make up much of the GOP electorate.

And again, this is a task that House Republicans have already brought on themselves. They could raise revenue; they could simply let the government continue to operate at a deficit (as they were content to do under Republican President Donald Trump).

Instead, they’ve decided to begin discussing the herculean task of trimming spending in places that won’t provoke a backlash and will eliminate nearly 25 cents of every federal spending dollar — a concept that, when considering one dollar, might seem approachable.

But when considering that it is, instead, $5,792,048,000,000? Our brains have an unfortunate habit of breaking.

Lenny Bronner contributed to this report.