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The budget is more than just a tally of numbers. It also expresses the policy priorities of our government. Each year, the President and the Congress have the opportunity to set priorities for the federal government, determining how much to spend through appropriations for annually funded programs as well as reviewing entitlement programs and the tax code.
In 2023, federal spending is projected to total $6.2 trillion — about one-fourth of the economy and $18,600 for each person living in the United States. That spending can be divided into three categories: mandatory, discretionary, and interest.
Programs governed by provisions of permanent law are referred to as “mandatory.” Put another way, spending on most mandatory programs are essentially on “autopilot” unless policymakers change the laws governing the program.
Many programs that provide benefits to individuals are classified as mandatory spending, such as Social Security, Medicare, and Medicaid. Those programs are also often referred to as "entitlements" because individuals who meet the programs’ eligibility requirements are "entitled" to benefits.
Mandatory spending covers programs in six major areas:
Lawmakers do not provide specific funding levels for mandatory spending. Instead, they specify who is eligible for benefits as well as the type and level of benefits that each person can receive. For example, the unemployment insurance program has eligibility criteria that, once met, allow an individual to receive a certain level of benefits. Total spending on the program depends on the number of people who file for unemployment, not on a fixed amount of funding set by lawmakers.
The term "mandatory" doesn’t mean that lawmakers are powerless to alter this spending. Elected officials can at any time adjust the eligibility criteria and benefit formulas that determine spending on mandatory programs, as they did with Social Security in 1983. However, if Congress and the President take no action, the current formulas and criteria for benefits generally remain in place year after year, and the spending flows as specified by law without interruption.
Over time, spending for mandatory programs has increased more quickly than most other programs — primarily because of growth in Social Security, Medicare, and Medicaid. In 1970, only 31 percent of the federal budget was spent on mandatory programs, while the rest funded an array of discretionary programs and net interest. CBO states that in 2023, 62 percent of federal spending went to mandatory programs.
Discretionary spending is determined on an annual basis by Congress and the President through enactment of appropriations. As opposed to the "automatic" nature of mandatory spending, discretionary spending must be revisited each year.
There are 12 separate appropriation bills that are supposed to be shepherded annually through Congress by the appropriations committees. Defense spending represents nearly half of all discretionary spending. Other major activities funded through appropriations include homeland security, education, transportation, research, food safety, science and space programs, disaster assistance, environmental protection, public housing, and federal law enforcement.
In the 1960s, two-thirds of total federal spending went to fund discretionary programs. In 2023, discretionary spending is projected to be about 28 percent of the budget. Over the next decade, it will decrease to a historically low level relative to the size of our national economy.
The third major category of spending is interest on the national debt. Interest rates have been low for more than a decade, but have recently spiked as a result of high inflation. As a result, interest costs are the fastest-growing “program” in the federal budget — exceeding the rate of growth of both Social Security and Medicare. Under current law, CBO projects that net interest costs will grow from 10.3 percent of the budget in 2023 to 14.4 percent in 2033, and to 24.0 percent in 2053. As a share of economy, that equates to 2.4 percent of gross domestic product in 2023, 3.6 percent in 2033, and 7.3 percent in 2053.