The Congress shall have Power to lay and collect Taxes, Duties, Imposts and Excises, to pay the Debts and provide for the common Defence and general Welfare of the United States…
— The United States Constitution, Article 1, Section 8
A day in your life

The Founding Fathers granted Congress the power to collect taxes to provide for the “general welfare” of the United States. As the size, economy, and complexity of the United States expanded, so too did the federal government’s roles and responsibilities in protecting Americans—providing for societal needs when the market does not and when individuals are unable to address these needs themselves. Using taxes paid to the Treasury, the federal government built an interstate highway system, connecting Americans across the country and funded research that led to the development of the Internet, connecting us to the rest of the world.  It invests in education, the foundation of economic opportunity. It protects our safety and security, in daily living and times of crisis. It invests in medical research to discover new cures that save lives. It provides training to an unemployed worker and a warm meal to a homebound senior. It provides a basic infrastructure that supports our modern way of living. Indeed, the taxes the federal government collects from us come back to us and our communities in many ways that make our society stronger and fairer.

The federal government does all this and more in the background every day, and thus we often take it for granted. As you prepare for work in the morning, you may not stop to realize the federal government makes sure the water you use to brush your teeth is safe. You don’t think twice about whether or not your breakfast will make you sick, because the federal government is monitoring the quality of eggs, bacon, orange juice, and coffee beans. As you commute to work, you may not notice that the bus or train you ride is funded by federal subsidies and grants. Or that the federal investment in your education and job training may have helped you qualify for your job. Once at work, you are free from unsafe conditions because the federal government sets basic safety standards for your workplace and holds your employer accountable to them.


When lawmakers and policy wonks in Washington talk about how and on what your taxpayer dollars are spent, they generally think in terms of two types of programs—“mandatory” and “discretionary.” Mandatory programs include Social Security, Medicare, Medicaid, and Supplemental and Nutrition Assistance Program or SNAP (formerly “food stamps”).  The funding for these programs generally flows automatically and is not determined by annual appropriations bills.  Funding for discretionary programs is set each year through the annual budget process. That is, Congress retains complete discretion, or choice, each year on whether and at what level to fund programs in the discretionary category. But these programs are far from dispensable.

Discretionary programs are generally described as: “defense discretionary,” which includes the Pentagon’s budget and related military programs; and “nondefense discretionary” or NDD, which includes everything else. NDD programs include core functions the government provides for the benefit of all, including medical and scientific research; education and job training; infrastructure; public safety and law enforcement; public health; weather monitoring and environmental protection; natural and cultural resources; housing and social services; and international relations. Every day these programs support economic growth and strengthen the safety and security of every American in every state and community across the nation. NDD programs support our economy, drive our global competitiveness, and provide an environment where all Americans may lead healthy, productive lives.

These programs help the federal government fulfill the Constitutional obligation to ‘provide for the general welfare of the United States.’


Despite the vast array of important services provided through NDD spending, it remains a small and shrinking share of the federal budget and our overall economy.  Historically, NDD represented less than one-fifth of the entire budget, and less than 4 percent of the country’s economy (gross domestic product or GDP).

NDD has been cut dramatically and disproportionately in recent years as lawmakers work to reduce the deficit, even though experts agree these programs—which are shrinking as a share of our economy — don’t contribute to our nation’s mid- and longer-term debt problem.

Between fiscal years 2010 and 2011, NDD programs were cut by 7 percent on average, with cuts to some programs deeper than 50 percent. Major deficit reduction legislation that was enacted in 2011, known as The Budget Control Act, established caps restricting how much funding Congress could allocate to discretionary programs each year over the next decade. As a result, by 2023 these caps will cut $1.6 trillion from defense discretionary and NDD programs combined, relative to the inflation-adjusted 2010 funding levels. By2017, NDD spending will equal a smaller percentage of our economy than ever before, with data going back to 1962.

The Budget Control Act also directed a congressional Joint Select Committee on Deficit Reduction to identify an additional $1.2 trillion in budgetary savings over ten years. The Budget Control Act included a provision that called for automatic cuts in both defense and non-defense programs — called sequestration — if the Congress did not reach an agreement on this level of deficit reduction. The failure of this bi-partisan “super committee” to come to an agreement on a balanced, meaningful deficit reduction plan triggered sequestration for 2013 and 2014, and unless Congress changes the law, for every year through 2021.

In budgetary terms, to “sequester” means to cut certain federal programs across-the-board until a set level of spending (or cuts) has been reached.  Sequestration led to even deeper cuts to both defense and non-defense discretionary programs (with some additional cuts coming from a specific set of entitlement programs, as well). These cuts are in addition to the $1.6 trillion in cuts already sustained through the Budget Control Act’s spending caps.

At the macro level, sequestration required an additional 5 percent across-the-board cut to NDD programs in 2013, relative to the funding level set by the Budget Control Act for that year. Over the next eight years, it means $109 billion a year cut from defense and nondefense programs, with most of the nondefense cuts coming from discretionary programs. By the time the Budget Control Act expires in 2021, NDD will represent just 11 percent of federal spending, and 2.6 percent of GDP—the lowest level on record back to 1962—if lawmakers do not act to replace sequestration with a more meaningful and comprehensive deficit reduction strategy.