The danger of autopilot entitlement spending

Each year Congress enacts 12 annual appropriations (spending) bills. Those bills are the subject of vigorous and legitimate fights about spending priorities.

Included in these annual appropriations bills are spending for defense, veterans, military construction, highways, housing, education (except student loans), foreign aid and the foreign service, the FBI, CIA, and Department of Justice, most of the Departments of Commerce and Labor, Congress and the White House, the Department of Homeland Security, including Border Patrol and Customs, highways, airports, and ports, health and energy research, scientific grants to universities, the Interior Department and Environmental Protection Agency budgets, national parks, … you get the idea.

Much of what we think of as the federal government gets its funding annually through these 12 bills. As a result, these debates and tradeoffs occur each year. This is called “discretionary” spending, which goes through the “annual appropriations process.”

In contrast, several “mandatory spending programs,” aka “entitlements” are on autopilot. Spending occurs based on formulas written in law. Those formulas contain variables that change according to external factors (wages, inflation, food costs, health care costs). Most importantly, these programs are on autopilot. Spending continues from one year to the next according to these formulas unless the laws are changed.

If Congress does not enact an annual appropriations bill this year for the Department of Justice, then DOJ will have to shut down on October 1st.

If Congress does not enact a law this year affecting Social Security, Medicare, or Medicaid, those programs will continue spending money based on the automatic formulas within them.

There are many smaller entitlements other than the big three (Social Security, Medicare, and Medicaid), but in an aggregate budget sense, it’s the big three that matter most. Payments to federal retirees and the refundable elements of tax credits are the next biggest.

From an aggregate budgetary perspective, these big three programs are (i) huge, and (ii) growing faster than the economy. As a result, they are swallowing up the rest of the budget, and they are the principal source of future spending growth.

These automatic spending increases that are “built into the baseline” are not carefully reexamined each year, and are not forced to compete with other priorities. The national parks, scientific research, and defense budgets are at a tremendous disadvantage – each year they have to compete for the marginal spending increase dollar, while the Big 3 entitlements quietly grow without anyone really noticing too much.

Let’s look at […]