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How the federal budget is supposed to work and why it rarely does

REUTERS/Jonathan Ernst
$4.1 trillion. Divided government. 12 congressional subcommittees. What could go wrong?
The congressional budgeting process only covers areas of discretionary federal spending, about 28% of overall federal spending.
  • Agriculture, Rural Development, Food and Drug Administration, and Related Agencies; 
  • Commerce, Justice, Science, and Related Agencies; 
  • Defense; 
  • Energy and Water Development, and Related Agencies; 
  • Financial Services and General Government; 
  • Homeland Security; 
  • Interior, Environment, and Related Agencies; 
  • Labor, Health and Human Services, Education, and Related Agencies; 
  • Legislative Branch; 
  • Military Construction, Veterans Affairs, and Related Agencies; 
  • State, Foreign Operations, and Related Programs; and 
  • Transportation, Housing and Urban Development, and Related Agencies.

Each bill has its own subcommittee, whose job it is to pass their appointed appropriations bill, sending it to the full committee and eventually onto the floor for a full vote. These bills are supposed to conform to the overall spending framework already set in the budget resolution.

A detailed breakdown of discretionary spending in President Obama’s proposed 2016 budget.

Devin Henry can be reached at Follow him on Twitter: @dhenry

Comments (3)

  1. Submitted by Ray Schoch on 02/12/2015 - 11:05 am.

    Nice caption

    “$4.1 trillion. Divided government. 12 congressional subcommittees. What could go wrong?”

    Well, at least the caption to the photo was amusing.

    Note how little of the actual budget is “discretionary,” then note how much of that “discretionary” spending is devoted to the military – in an era when the U.S. has no state-sized enemies. It would seem that Eisenhower’s warning of more than half a century ago, about the military-industrial complex taking over, was both accurate and prescient. One of the reasons for the hostility of the rhetoric from both parties at budget time is that most federal programs – whether highways, prisons, national parks or meat inspection – are much like Dickensian children fighting for scraps at the table while the military gets the appetizer, and Social Security and our ridiculous health care system get the main course.

  2. Submitted by Jon Kingstad on 02/12/2015 - 01:23 pm.

    Time for Peace

    Nice job on laying out the process and the stakes.

    I’ve read elsewhere that the actual “Pentagon budget” is about $665 billion, which is based on moving the cost of nuclear weapons from Department of Energy. Maybe this pie chart already shows that. If you add veteran’s affairs, non-Department of Defense national security, and the share of interest on our national debt attributed to military spending-what’s called the “National Security Budget”- the number in 2015 is $1,009.5 billion.

    It makes little difference what the ultimate number is because he issue is about priorities. There is plenty of “bi-partisanship” when it comes to the military and “National Security Budget.” Congress gets its kicks out of useless aircraft carriers and other types of military hardware. Never mid this is only used to protect “our interests”- really the interests of the 1%- in foreign countries where they are deeply resented. And make the rest of us very insecure indeed.

    Meanwhile, some members of Congress are positioning to make further cuts to already starved areas which have been cut by $87 billion since 2011 or 15%. And they want to cut Social Security and Medicare.

    I wonder when Congress is going to finally wake up and realize that WWII ended 70 years ago, the Vietnam War ended 40 years ago and the Cold War ended 25 years ago? It’s time to declare victory and let us finally have Peace.

  3. Submitted by Dennis Tester on 02/13/2015 - 08:12 am.

    Military budget

    Even at a time when the lion lies down with the lamb, I want to be the lion.

    That said, by my estimations at least 40% of defense spending is wasteful and could be eliminated. I’ve posted here in the past how that could be done while actually increasing the effectiveness and efficiency of the military.

    The difference between me and most of you is that I would use the savings to eliminate the deficit and maybe even pay down the debt whereas you would just shift the money to other government spending.

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