Item ('07 unless noted) Amt ($billion)
Social Security Payments 586
Defense (minus Iraq, Afghan.) 548
Interest on nat'l debt '08 244
Medicaid '08 202
Iraq and Afghan wars 186
Stimulus rebates '08 168
Foreign tax loophole discovered Sept '08 100
Veterans benefits 73
Justice Dept 44
Food Stamps 39
Foreign Affairs 32
Earmarks '08 16
National Parks 2
What does this tell us?
Three things. First, the media attention given to issues doesn't accurately reflect their real size in the budget. There are headlines over every wasteful 'bridge to nowhere' pork project, and while they're awful, they're also a small part of the budget. In fact, a tax loophole the IRS just announced is more than eight times the size of all 'pork' projects combined. We aren't going to balance the budget just by trimming pork.
Second, our National Parks are being shamefully squeezed. We could quadruple its budget and it would still be one of the smallest national programs. Ditto for NASA. If you think the money we spend on NASA would be better spent on schools, you're looking at the wrong source. NASA is small (half the size it was in 1965, by inflation adjusted dollars), and it's the big items we need to debate.
Third, if we want to balance the budget, it's going to be through defense cuts or tax hikes.
Yes, Social Security, Medicare, and Medicaid are big parts of the budget, but they also have their own tax sources. Social Security is currently in surplus, and while that will change, that's a topic for another time. For now, the items funded by your general income taxes are dominated by defense spending.
Take every other program in this chart - education, transportation, food stamps, and yes, NASA - and add them together. That's less than we spend on defense and the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. Throw in unemployment expenses. It's still less.
I believe in a strong national defense, but I also believe in fiscal responsibility, and if we don't want higher taxes, we're going to need to rein in spending where it counts. Trimming the National Parks program won't balance the budget, but a careful look at defense just might.