December 10, 2007 1:27PM

There Is No Such Thing as Mandatory Federal Spending

Sometimes, governments lie. For example, the U.S. government describes outlays for Social Security, Medicare, and Medicaid as “mandatory” spending, in contrast to “discretionary” spending on things like national defense and bridges to nowhere.

Yet “mandatory” spending is not really mandatory. It too is discretionary, and everyone knows it. The only thing that makes “mandatory” spending different is that Congress creates legislative formulas that automatically determine spending levels, instead of determining spending levels each year through the regular appropriations process. Congress can change those formulas at its discretion, which means that such spending is actually … discretionary. Calling such spending “mandatory” is therefore a lie that serves only to conceal the choices Congress has made.

The U.S. government, its officers, and its agents should describe federal spending as either “automatic” or “appropriated.” There is no such thing as mandatory federal spending.

Update: I stand corrected.