Hellman describes process, priorities of national budget

NPP Pressroom

The Pendulum (Elon University)
Caitlin O'Donnell

Chris Hellman, the director of the National Priorities Project, visited Elon's campus Tuesday night to discuss the distribution of federal funds, particularly to the military, which traditionally has a very high budget. "There is a lack of general public understanding of the process and its implications," Hellman said. "One of the things we attempt to do at the NPP is to provide understanding of the budget process and the impact federal spending has on the communities in which you live." Hellman defined a budget as a set of funding decisions which reflect priorities, whether they be of a household or a nation. Historically, the focal points of citizens' priorities have remained uniform and fairly constant over time. Hellman explained that at the community level, people are interested in decent-paying jobs, the end of poverty and hunger, as well as affordable housing. At the national level, priorities focus on reducing the federal debt. "There are three main areas of spending," he said. "The largest one is called mandatory spending, which is dictated by law and includes services such as social security and Medicare." This area represents 60 percent of the overall budget and funding for the programs does not happen regularly. A third of the budget is used for discretionary spending, which the President requests and Congress acts on each year. Around 58 percent of these funds are allocated to the military and the remainder is divided between transportation, internal affairs, veteran's benefits and other programs. Hellman explained that President Obama has proposed a freeze on the discretionary budget for three years, which means the amount of money available in the budget would not increase. "The reason this is problematic is that, while that money is frozen, inflation continues to grow at 2-3 percent annually," he said. "So what was worth one dollar this year will be worth a dollar minus 3 percent next year, so your purchasing power is gone." The third area of spending involves paying the interest on the nations' debt. Although this is mandatory, Hellman said it does not require annual review. Although the United States puts much preparation into the development of the budget each year, it is impossible to prepare for unexpected events, such as wars and national disasters. Hellman explained that these events are referred to as contingencies. "You can't anticipate things like Hurricane Katrina, for example," he said. "They require a federal response, but they are funded outside of the normal budget process." In the same way, wars are typically not addressed in the annual budget process, though the budget for the military is high. "The U.S. spends 7 times what China does," Hellman said. "And currently, we are outspending ourselves compared to any point in our own history, besides WWII." In many cases, uncertainty concerning the state of the world and the future is a catalyst for those investing in the military to plan as best they can. "They prepare in order to respond to a range of threats which may or may not be out there," Hellman said. "They would rather err on the side of caution than on the side of risk." Pressure from the general public can also lead to increased military spending, Hellman said. Through their research, the NPP found that voting for more money for the military has never cost a political candidate an election, while seeming soft on terrorism has. Americans also possess a specific vision for their role in the world and have a strong belief in their own personal values. "A large segment of Americans consider it incumbent on the United States to act anywhere in the world," Hellman said. "We are the only nation in the world with the military capacity to project our force anywhere in the world and do so in a short period of time." Elon freshman David Campbell said he thought Hellman's presentation was very informative. "It's amazing to see how much money we spend on military operations," Campbell said. "A fraction of that money could go to education and help so much."