The Center for American Progress' Michael Linden draws attention to an important phenomenon: spending in one budget category, non-defense discretionary spending, has been cut over the past few years to the point that it is projected to reach postwar lows as a percent of gross domestic product.
'Non-defense discretionary spending' is a vague term, but as Linden explains, it means more or less everything that isn't defense, Medicare, Medicaid, or Social Security. It
includes nearly all of the federal government’s investments in primary and secondary education, in transportation infrastructure, and in scientific, technological, and health care research and development. It also includes nearly all of the federal government’s law enforcement resources, as well as essentially all federal efforts to keep our air, water, food, pharmaceuticals, consumer products, workplaces, highways, airports, coasts, and borders safe. It includes veterans’ health care services and some nutritional, housing, and child care assistance to low-income families. It even includes the funding for such national treasures as the Smithsonian Institution, our national parks system, and the National Aeronautics and Space Administration, better known as NASA.
Linden explains what's in store for this group of budget items:
In the past 50 years, federal funding for this broad category of programs and services has never fallen below 3.2 percent of our nation’s gross domestic product – the broadest measure of economic activity. Now, however, because of the spending cuts that have been signed into law since the fall of 2010, within 10 years, nondefense discretionary funding will be about 14 percent lower than its lowest point in the past 50 years—even before taking into account the effects of the large automatic spending cuts scheduled to begin in March 2013.
Why has this happened? No domestic discretionary program has the political backing that Social Security or Medicare, each with millions of beneficiaries, enjoys. As a result, when Congress wants to cut spending, the non-defense, non-entitlement part of the budget is the first place it looks. But, as another of Linden's charts shows, there are only so many savings to be wrung out of those programs: