Non-Defense Discretionary Programs


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What is Non-Defense Discretionary Spending?

  • “Discretionary spending” is the portion of the Federal budget (about 30 percent) that is appropriated each year by Congress and is allocated roughly half to defense and half to non-defense programs.
    • The other 70% of the budget is called “mandatory spending,” because the amount of outlays flow from legal obligations of the federal government established in law–mostly in the form of “entitlement” programs such as Social Security, Medicare, and Medicaid.  Interest payments on the debt — the fastest growing part of the budget — is also mandatory spending.
  • Spending caps on defense and non-defense discretionary spending, for each year through 2021, were put in place in 2011 as part of debt ceiling negotiations.
    • However, the caps were lowered further in 2013 (by automatic reductions called “sequestration”) when a special congressional committee failed to achieve deficit reduction from entitlement reforms and new revenues.
  • Congress quickly backed away from the sequester-level caps on discretionary spending and increased the caps — two years at a time — in Bipartisan Budget Agreements in late 2013 (for FY’14 and ’15), in 2015 (for FY’16 and ’17), and again in 2018 (for FY’18 and FY’19).
  • The Bipartisan Budget Act of 2018 raised the statutory caps on discretionary spending by a total of $296 billion over FY’18 and FY’19.
    • Defense caps:
      • FY’18 increased from $549 billion to $629 billion (+$80 billion, 15%)
      • FY”19 increased from $562 billion to $647 billion (+$85 billion, 15%)
    • Non-Defense caps: 
      • FY’18 increased from $516 billion to $579 billion (+$63 billion, 12%)
      • FY’19 increased from $529 billion to $597 billion (+$68 billion, 13%)
  • Non-defense discretionary funds a multitude of government operations and programs including law enforcement, veterans healthcare, homeland security, education, prisons, NASA, disease and epidemic control, highways & bridges, food and drug inspection, disaster relief, airports, health research, housing assistance, and many other functions of government.

Following are non-defense discretionary programs/categories funded at $1 billion or more in FY 2017.


FY 2017 Budget Authority and Outlays by Function, Category, and Program

Budget Function
Program or Program Categories
Source for Data: Budget of the United States, OMB FY 2017 Outlays Baseline
Click on program titles for nonpartisan CRS background reports
FY 2017

Defense (Budget Function 050)  Go to the “Defense Spending” page

International Affairs (Budget Function 150)

Click here for spending and background on State Dept. and Foreign Aid

General Science, Space & Technology (Budget Function 250)

NASA $19 billion
National Science Foundation $6.7 billion
Dept of Energy Science Programs $5.9 billion
CRS Report:  Overview of Federal Research and Development Funding  n/a

Energy (Budget Function 270)

Fossil Energy Funding $0.8 billion
Uranium Enrichment Decontamination $0.8 billion
Energy Efficiency and Renewable Energy (supply and conservation) $2 billion
Nuclear Energy R&D Funding $0.9 billion

Natural Resources & Environment (Budget Function 300)

Pollution Control and Abatement (EPA) — Appropriations Overview
Regulatory, Enforcement, and Research $3.3 billion
EPA State and Tribal Assistance Grants $3.8 billion
Hazardous Substance Cleanup (Superfund) $1.1 billion
CRS: Nonpartisan Background Paper on Climate Change for Congress
CRS: Changes in the Arctic Background and Issues for Congress
Corps of Engineers – Water Projects $7.2 billion
Forest Service $6.5 billion
Operation of Recreational Resources $3 billion
Fish and Wildlife Service  $1.5 billion
Nat’l Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration $6 billion
U.S. Geological Survey (USGS) $2 billion
Management of Public Lands (BLM) $1.2 billion
Bureau of Reclamation (responsible for construction of most of the large irrigation and water resources infrastructure in the West) $1.3 billion

Agriculture (Budget Function 350)

Farm Income Stabilization (these are administrative expenses; the program itself is an entitlement) $1.3 billion
Research and Education $2.2 billion
Animal and Plant Inspection $1.1 billion

Commerce and Housing Credit (Budget Function 370)

National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST): Science and Technology $1 billion
Economic and Demographic Statistics $1.5 billion
Small and Minority Business Assistance $0.7 billion

Transportation (Budget Function 400)

Federal funding for Highways: is a budgetary oddity since the spending authority is considered to be “mandatory spending” since it is provided in multiyear highway “authorizing legislation,”  however, the outlays are considered to be “discretionary” since they are controlled by the Appropriations Committee. $43 billion
Federal Funding for Mass Transit similar to funding for Highways, explained above, the outlays for mass transit are considered to be “discretionary,” although the spending authority is controlled by multiyear authorizing legislation. $10.5 billion
Airports and Airways (FAA) $17 billion
Marine Safety and Transportation $8.6 billion
Air Transportation Security (TSA) $5 billion
Railroads $3.4 billion
Highway Safety $1.5 billion

Community and Regional Development & Disaster Relief (Budget Function 450)

Disaster Assistance and Response Programs $3 billion
Indian Programs $1.7 billion
Community Development Grants to States and Cities $6.8 billion
FEMA State and Local Grants $2.2 billion
Other Disaster Programs $1.4 billion
Rural Development Programs $0.8 billion

Education, Employment & Training, Social Services (Budget Function 500)

Pell Grants and other Higher Education and Student Aid
Federal Pell Grant Program: How it Works (funded primarily through discretionary appropriations, with a portion through mandatory spending).
$27 billion
Education for the Disadvantaged Title I $16 billion
Special Education Funding (Children with Disabilities) $13 billion
Children and Family Services $11.1 billion
School Improvement Funding $4.5 billion
Training and Employment Services $6.9 billion
Older Americans Act and Aging Services $1.9 billion
Innovation & Improvement (Charter Schools and Non-Public Education) $1.3 billion
Vocational and Adult Education $1.5 billion
Indian Education $1 billion
Corporation for National and Community Service (AmeriCorps and Senior Service Corps) $1.1 billion
Impact Aid (payments to states/cities) $1.4 billion
Labor law, statistics and other labor services $1.9 billion
Smithsonian Institution: protecting national treasures and increasing knowledge in art, science & history [2018 SI bj  2015 2011 2007 2007 2006 1996 1992 1977] $863 million
Corporation for Public Broadcasting $445 million

Health (Budget Function 550)

Note: the bulk of U.S. health spending is through the Medicare, Medicaid, Children’s Health Insurance, and Affordable Care Act programs, all of which are “entitlement programs” i.e. annual spending is determined by benefit formulas and the number of eligible individuals — not by annual appropriations decisions.  See “Medicaid and Medicaid,” “Affordable Care Act,” and “Other Mandatory” pages of this website for program and spending details.
National Institutes of Health $32 billion
Centers for Disease Control Funding $6.5 billion
Indian Health Service $4.9 billion
Mental Health, Substance Abuse (SAMHSA) $3.6 billion
HRSA: health care services for the uninsured and medically underserved and Social Services Emergency Fund $7.2 billion
Food and Drug Administration Overview

Medical Devices;  Drugs: Safety and EffectivenessFY 2016 AppropriationsFood Safety PrimerPDUFASafety and Innovation Act

$2.6 billion
Food Safety and Inspection Service $1 billion
Occupational and Mine Safety and Health $1 billion

Medicare Administrative Costs (Budget Function 570)

Medicare Hospital Insurance (Part A) Administrative Costs $2.9 billion
Medicare Part B Administrative Costs $2.8 billion
See the “Medicare and Medicaid” page for outlays from Medicare Hospital Insurance, Supplementary Medical Insurance, and Prescription Drugs which are entitlement programs, i.e., annual outlays is determined by benefit formulas and the number of legally eligible beneficiaries — not by annual appropriations decisions.  Net mandatory spending for Medicare is $602 billion.

Income Security (including Housing, Food & Nutrition) (Budget Function 600)

Rental Housing Assistanc (Section 8) $20 billion
Project-Based Rental Assistance $11 billion
Public Housing Operating and Capital Fund $6.5 billion
HOME Investment Partnerships Program $1 billion
Nutrition for Women Infants and Children $6.4 billion
LIHEAP: Low Income Home Energy Assistance Program $3.1 billion
Unemployment Trust Fund: Administrative Expenses  $4.1 billion
Homeless Assistance $2.3 billion
Childcare and Development Block Grant

(In addition to this amount, there is a $3 billion Child Care Entitlement to States that is “mandatory” spending.)

$2.8 billion
Rural Housing Assistance $1.5 billion
Refugee Assistance $1.8 billion
Supplemental Security Income Administration $5.4 billion

Social Security Administration (Budget Function 650)

Social Security Administration (Old Age and Survivors Insurance Expenses) $2.8 billion
Social Security Administration (Disability Insurance Expenses) $3.0 billion
See “Other Mandatory” Spending page for Social Security Old Age and Survivors Benefits and Disability Benefits which are entitlement programs, i.e., annual spending for particular benefits is determined by the number of legally eligible beneficiaries — not by annual appropriations decisions.  Total mandatory spending for Social Security is $970 billion.

Veterans Benefits and Services (Budget Function 700)

Veterans Healthcare (unlike other VA benefits that are statutory entitlements, healthcare is part of the annual discretionary budget) $64 billion
Veterans Administration Medical Facilities and Construction $5.5 billion
Department of Veterans Affairs Administrative Expenses $7.5 billion
See “Other Mandatory” Spending page for Veterans compensation, pension, education, training, and rehabilitation which are entitlement programs, i.e., annual spending for particular benefits is determined by the number of legally eligible veterans — not by annual appropriations decisions.  Total mandatory spending for veterans is $104 billion.

Law Enforcement, Prisons, Administration of Justice (Budget Function 750)

Border and Transportation Security $21 billion
Federal Litigation (Civil and Criminal) $5.8 billion
Judicial Activities $7.1 billion
Federal Prison System $7.5 billion
Criminal Investigations (FBI, DEA, DHS) $6.5 billion
State and Local Law Enforcement Grants $1.4 billion
Bureau of Alcohol Tobacco and Firearms (ATF) $1.2 billion
US Secret Service $2 billion

General Government (Budget Function 800)

Internal Revenue Service Budget $11 billion
Legislative Branch: House, Senate, Government Accountability Office, Architect of the Capitol, Government Printing Office $4 billion
Executive Office of the President funding $0.4 billion

Net Interest (Budget Function 900) is mandatory spending, i.e., it is determined by the amount of public debt and interest rates, not by annual appropriations decisions.