Current U.S. Federal Government Spending

Where Does the Government's Money Go?

government spending
Doesn't he look happy to be spending your money?. Photo: Brand X Pictures/Getty Images

Current U.S. government spending is $4.073 trillion. That's the Federal budget for  fiscal year 2017 (October 1, 2016, to September 30, 2017).  It's 21.4% of economic output as measured by Gross Domestic Product (GDP).  

Before the recession, the government kept Federal spending below 20% of GDP.  It grew no faster than the economy. That was around 3% per year. During the recession, spending grew to a record 24.3% of GDP in FY 2012.

The government spent more on economic stimulus and engaged in 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. But after that, spending began creeping up again. It rose to $3.876 trillion in FY 2016, or 21.1% of GDP. 

Where Does the Money Go?

M​ost of the money goes to pay Social Security, Medicare, and Medicaid benefits. These are part of mandatory spending. Those are programs established by prior Acts of Congress. They will cost $2.606 trillion in FY 2017. That's nearly two-thirds of all U.S. government spending. It's skyrocketing because more aging Baby Boomers are reaching retirement age. By 2030, one in five Americans will be older than 65. (Source: "Aging Population in the United States.)

Social Security costs the most at $948 billion. Current payroll taxes provide $841 billion of income. Interest from the Social Security Trust Fund pays for the rest. But the costs will outpace income by 2030. That means Social Security benefits will drain the general fund. It also means Congress can't "borrow" from the Social Security Trust Fund to pay for other Federal programs.

Medicare ($592 billion) and Medicaid ($385 billion) are the next largest expenses. Medicare taxes pay for $257 billion of this cost. The rest comes from the general fund.

All other mandatory programs cost $681 billion. 

  • Income support programs Food Stamps, Unemployment Compensation, Child Nutrition, Child Tax Credits, Supplemental Security for the blind and disabled, and Student Loans. Unemployment insurance pays for $51 billion of this. For more, see Welfare Programs: Myths vs Facts.
  • Retirement and Disability programs for Civil Servants, the Coast Guard, and the Military. There's $10 billion tax revenue to pay for this.
  • Obama budgeted $1 billion to pay for immigration reform if Congress passes the Act. (It didn't.)

Interest Payments on the National Debt

Interest payments on the national debt are $266 billion for FY 2017. That's enough to pay for ten Justice Departments. It's also one of the fastest growing expenses. By 2026, it will more than double to $685 billion, becoming the second largest budget item after Social Security.

It's not a mandatory program, but it must be paid to avoid a U.S. debt default. Interest rates are expected to rise. If that happens, these estimates will also increase. (Source: "Mid-Session Review Fiscal Year 2017, Table S-5," July 15, 2016. "FY 2017 budget, Table S-5," Office of Management and Budget.)

Discretionary Spending 

The discretionary budget is $1.241 trillion. It pays for everything else. Congress decides how much to appropriate for these programs each year. That means it's the only government spending that Congress can cut.  

There is an additional fund for emergencies. Congress allocates this outside of the budget. For FY 2017, the emergency fund is $84 billion. The largest component is for Overseas Contingency Operations, and it's for wars. 

Once you include the OCO fund, then military spending is $773.5 billion. It's spread out among different agencies and budget categories, so you must add it all together. It includes:

  • Defense Department base budget: $523.9 billion.
  • Overseas Contingency Operations: $73.7 billion.
  • Departments that support defense: $175.9 billion. They include the Veterans Administration, State Department, Homeland Security, FBI and Cybersecurity, and the National Nuclear Security Administration.

    The next largest department, Health and Human Services ($78.3 billion) is just 1/10 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 get even less. For more details, see Current Discretionary Spending

    Understand the Current Federal Budget

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