The two spending bins consist pretty much of what's written on the tin. Mandatory spending is mandatory: Congress writes a law allocating a specified amount of money for a program, with further instructions on how the program's budget will be calculated from then on in, and the money going forward gets allocated by law according to those instructions. It's "mandatory" spending in that Congress has already mandated the funding; it doesn't need to keep doing so each subsequent year because that funding is, from that point on, already a statutory requirement.
Discretionary spending is everything else. It exists only year to year according to the various appropriation acts in which great gobs of programs are thrown together with budgets based on who's on what committee and how much clout they have. Rebuilding bridges or putting a new high-speed rail service from point A to point B is discretionary in that it gets a certain amount of money thrown its way, and if it needs a dime in addition to that, the departments in charge of those programs are going to have to come back and beg for it.
So-called entitlement programs typically function as mandatory spending because it would be a train wreck, and definitely not the high-speed kind, for what is known in government circles as the G--damn Senate to haul their butts to their chambers every single year to fight over whether we'll be continuing to pay people their earned Social Security checks or will simply be telling those Americans to pound sand that year. Infrastructure projects and, in fact, any other government spending that hasn't been written into the law by a previous Congress are discretionary projects—Congress can decide at their "discretion" to stop forking over money for them, at which point they are mothballed or simply die.
You already know where this is going, of course. On a Tuesday podcast, as Republicans were attempting to hype up the notion that sick-with-cancer veterans were trying to cheat the system with a bill that mandated full funding for their treatment rather than "discretionary" year-to-year funding, Republican Sen. Ron Johnson took the opportunity to complain that everything government does should be lumped into the "discretionary" bin. That includes Medicare and Social Security, the two mandatory spending programs that Republicans have been trying to slash for decades.
"It never, you just don’t do proper oversight. You don’t get in there and fix the programs going bankrupt, it’s just on automatic pilot. What we ought to be doing is we ought to turn everything into discretionary spending so it’s all evaluated so that we can fix problems or fix programs that are broken," grumbled Johnson.
Now, there is a reason why Social Security, Medicare, and similar large-scale programs are on "automatic pilot," and Ron Johnson's existence is nine-tenths of that reason. The reason Congress sets permanent budget allocations for permanent programs is that Congress, and most especially the Senate, is a barely-coherent, largely-incompetent bumbling clown show that now regularly brings government to its knees as various ever-campaigning Republicans look to showboat about their pet issues by blocking federal funding for everything else until they get their way. This can lead to the closure of government offices (no funding!), the temporary cessation of government services (still no funding!), and, yes, can lead to the government being completely unable to write checks because there's either no authorized budget for writing those checks or no authorized budget for someone to take the printed-out checks and throw them into the U.S. mail.
But it's not about shutdowns, which up until recently were rare enough that Congress seldom even needed to consider the possibility. It is because attempting to get the entire United States Social Security or Medicare programs re-debated and re-passed by each Senate each year is such a gawdawful ridiculous concept that it would strain the national sanity to even contemplate. What Ron Johnson is proposing is that the Senate debate, every last damn year, whether the government will honor its past promises to send Social Security recipients a federally mandated amount based on how much they've paid into that system over their lives ... or will, every year, just say screw it and cut the checks in half because Ron Johnson thinks retired Americans these days need to either get back to work or hurry up and die.
Every. Single. Year.
The reason we do not do this, as a country, is self-explanatory. Even the Senate knows the Senate is full of incompetent, greedy ne'er-do-wells. These people would sell their own grandmothers for pocket change, so the notion of long periods in which we simply erase Medicare coverage or Social Security checks and tell every American in either program to hold their breath while Ron Johnson or Ted Cruz performs another little dance on the Senate floor was deemed to be a non-starter when the programs were developed and voted into law. Ron Johnson couldn't be trusted to babysit your kids for three hours without accidentally microwaving one of them, there's no way he and his fellow bumblers could manage to re-pass Social Security's entire funding mechanism without intentionally or unintentionally turning the whole program to cinders.
And that is the reason that Johnson and other Republican senators are so animated about things going in the "discretionary spending" bin. Government is most stable when Congress can set up programs that run themselves even when Ron Johnson gets his hand trapped in a vending machine; anyone attached to the notion of good, efficient government would prefer that as many programs as possible be set up with permanent or semi-permanent funding sources so that they are not constantly buffeted with new expectations and mandates that last only twelve months at a time.
The only reason lawmakers want something to go in the discretionary spending bin is so that the next Congress can come back and kill it. Maybe the killing will be a justified one, if a program authorized by a previous Congress has turned into a do-nothing boondoggle. Or maybe Sen. Pat Toomey wants to be seen as giving a damn about war veterans with cancer, but would prefer to be seen as giving a damn about war veterans with cancer for just one year before quietly cutting the budget for that healthcare by a third, or by a half, or down to nothing.
Most of the Senate agreed to fully fund the veterans' program so that future congresses would have to specifically pass a new bill if they wanted to cut off that funding; Toomey and others wanted a version where the program would be ended automatically if it wasn't specifically re-authorized from one year to the next. Veterans were incandescent with outrage because they knew, full well, that that would require them to spend the rest of their lives trudging to the U.S. Capitol to beg senators not to pull their medical care out from under them. Passing this law the first time was a heavy lift that required the dedication of God Only Knows how many people and one extremely pissed-off celebrity. The thought of having to do it as yearly pilgrimage to the same smarmy senators who could barely be convinced to hear their case the first time around? Horrific.
Sen. Ron Johnson will not get his way, on this one. Turning Social Security or Medicare into "discretionary" programs would quickly result in them being carved to ribbons, which Johnson knows and is salivating over, but the sleight-of-hand of turning them "discretionary" is not nearly clever enough for even the most inattentive voter to figure out that Johnson means the cut-to-ribbons thing. The only news here is that Johnson is so very... let's say vapid, that he's willing to publicly muse about destroying two of America's most consequential safety net programs by turning them into playthings for himself, Ted Cruz, Mitch McConnell, and the rest of his caucus to bat around.
Yeesh. Even imagining it should be enough to give Americans on either program hives. Which is probably not covered by Medicare, so maybe "Ron Johnson's ideas are so terrible that even listening to them gave me hives" needs to be a separate government program.
The funding can be discretionary because, with any luck, Ron Johnson won't be in the Senate forever, and the program can end as soon as Wisconsin agrees to put him back where they found him. Or maybe he'll end up in federal prison for, you know, that other thing. We can dream.
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