Current US Federal Government Spending

How Congress Really Spends Your Money

Uncle Sam's top hat filled with currency to represent government spending.
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Current U.S. government spending is $4.829 trillion. That's the federal budget for the fiscal year 2021 covering Oct. 1, 2020, to Sept. 30, 2021. It's 20.7% of gross domestic product according to the Office of Management and Budget Report for FY 2021.

Key Takeaways

  • Government spending for FY 2021 budget is $4.829 trillion.
  • Despite sequestration to curb government spending, deficit spending has increased with the government’s effort to continually boost economic growth.
  • Two-thirds of federal expenses must go to mandatory programs such as Social Security, Medicare, and Medicaid.
  • The United States must pay the interest or risk defaulting on its debt and shaking investors’ faith in its capacity to pay. If it does not, there could be domestic and global economic consequences.

Why Spending Is Increasing

Before the recession, the government kept federal spending below 20% of GDP. It grew no faster than the economy, around 2% to 3% per year. During the recession, spending grew to a record 24.4% of GDP in FY 2009. This increase was due to economic stimulus and two overseas wars.

At the same time, growth slowed. That reduced tax receipts. Congress worried about the ballooning U.S. debt. No one could agree on how to reduce it. As a result, Congress enacted a 10% budget cut, called sequestration. That finally reduced spending to 20.7% of GDP in FY 2015.

Since then, spending has crept up again despite the sequester. Congress and the president rely on deficit spending to boost economic growth. But deficit spending is out of control. It rises each year even when the economy is doing well.

Federal Spending Breakdown

Almost two-thirds of federal spending goes toward paying the benefits required by Social Security, Medicare, and Medicaid. These are part of mandatory spending. Those are programs established by prior Acts of Congress.

The interest payments on the national debt total $378 billion for FY 2021. These are required to maintain faith in the U.S. government.

The remainder goes toward discretionary spending. This pays for all federal government agencies. The largest is the military.

Mandatory Spending

The mandatory budget will cost $2.966 trillion in FY 2021. Mandatory spending is skyrocketing because more baby boomers are reaching retirement age. By 2030, one in five Americans will be older than 65. 

Social Security costs the most at $1.151 trillion. Current payroll taxes provide $1 trillion of the income. Interest from the Social Security Trust Fund pays for the rest.

But the costs will outpace interest and income by 2034. At that time, Social Security benefits will begin draining the general fund. It also means Congress can no longer "borrow" from the Social Security Trust Fund to pay for other federal programs.

Medicare ($722 billion) and Medicaid ($448 billion) are the next largest expenses. Medicare taxes pay for $308 billion of its cost. The rest comes from premiums and the general fund.

The following mandatory programs total $645 billion: 

National Debt Interest Payments

In FY 2021, interest payments on the national debt are estimated at $378 billion. That's enough to pay for 11 Justice Departments. It's also one of the fastest-growing expenses. 

By 2030, it will almost double to $665 billion, costing more than Medicaid. It's not a mandatory program, but it must be paid to avoid a U.S. debt default. These estimates will increase if interest rates rise.

Discretionary Spending 

Discretionary spending is $1.485 trillion. It pays for everything else. Congress decides how much to appropriate for these programs each year. It's the only government spending that Congress can cut.

There is an additional fund for emergencies. Congress allocates this outside of the budget subject to sequestration.

For FY 2021, the emergency fund is $74.3 billion. The largest component is Overseas Contingency Operations that pay for wars.

Once you include the OCO fund, then military spending is $934 billion. It's spread out among different agencies and budget categories, so you must add it all together. It includes:

  • Defense Department base budget: $636 billion.
  • DoD Overseas Contingency Operations: $69 billion.
  • Departments that support defense: $228 billion. They include the Department of Veterans Affairs ($93 billion), State Department ($48 billion), Homeland Security ($48 billion), FBI and Cybersecurity ($10 billion), and the National Nuclear Security Administration ($17 billion).

The next largest non-military department, Health and Human Services ($96.4 billion) is just above one-tenth of total military spending. Its primary function is to spend mandated benefits for Medicare, Medicaid, and the Affordable Care Act. Other important federal government functions receive even fewer funds.

Understand the Current Federal Budget

Compare to Past Budgets

Article Sources

  1. The White House. “A Budget for America’s Future: FY 2021,” Table S-4. Page 112. Accessed Feb. 27, 2020.

  2. The White House. “A Budget for America’s Future: FY 2021,” Table S-5. Page 113. Accessed Feb. 27, 2020.

  3. Federal Reserve Bank of St. Louis. "U.S. Fiscal Policy: Reality and Outlook." Accessed Jan. 13, 2020.

  4. House Committee on the Budget. "Understanding Sequester: An Update for 2018." Accessed Jan. 13, 2020.

  5. Federal Reserve Bank of St. Louis. "The Great Recession's Effect on the Federal Budget." Accessed Jan. 13, 2020.

  6. Congressional Research Service. "Debt and Deficits: Spending, Revenue, and Economic Growth." Accessed Jan. 13, 2020.

  7. Congressional Budget Office. "The Federal Budget in 2018: An Infographic." Accessed Jan. 13, 2020.

  8. Brookings Institute. "The Long-term Impact of Aging on the Federal Budget." Accessed Jan. 13, 2020.

  9. Social Security Administration (SSA). "The Future Financial Status of the Social Security Program." Accessed Jan. 13, 2020.

  10. Congressional Budget Office. "What is the Difference Between Mandatory and Discretionary Spending?" Accessed Jan. 13, 2020.

  11. The White House. “A Budget for America’s Future: FY 2021,” Table S-8. Page 125. Accessed Feb. 27, 2020.