The organization of the U.S. federal budget can prove perplexing for casual observers of government spending and even more seasoned veterans of the budget process. The government organizes the budget according to multiple taxonomies. Simultaneously, different types of federal funding may either be counted or not under the various rules that divide the budget into categories of funding. To further complicate things, some federal budget documents may account for inflation in some cases while others do not.
Given this complexity, government spending for agencies or specific functions can be subject to different interpretations that may appear contradictory or inconsistent. As a result, debates over the federal budget are often politicized as actors cite the numbers that best support their interests rather than the most accurate and relevant data.
This interactive tool attempts to alleviate confusion over government spending by providing a breakdown of the federal budget from FY 1976 to FY 2020, with projections from the most recent budget request for FY 2021 to FY 2025. Users can make direct comparisons of funding for government agencies or budget functions in inflation-adjusted dollars. Comparisons can be made in terms of discretionary funding only, or both discretionary and mandatory funding. The sections below provide more detailed information on the methodology and definitions of associated terms.
Toggle between the different spreadsheets to see government spending in different contexts. For example, the discretionary “050 National Defense” budget request of $740.5 billion for FY 2021 clearly dominates the government’s overall discretionary budget request, accounting for over 55 percent of the total and over seven times greater than the second largest budget function (“700 Veterans Benefits and Services”). In the context of total government spending (including both discretionary and mandatory funds), the national defense budget is only 15 percent of the FY 2021 budget request and is exceeded by funding for Social Security and Medicare. Recognizing the context in which arguments concerning the budget are made enables analysts and observers to look past the rhetoric and assess the facts.
This tool compiles data from the Office of Management and Budget (OMB) Historical Tables for budget authority by agency and by budget function from FY 1976 to FY 2025 (the data for FY 2021 to FY 2025 are projections from the administration’s FY 2021 budget request). The FY 1976 – FY 2025 time frame was selected given the available data from the Historical Tables (although budget authority for the transition quarter (TQ) between FY 1976 and FY 1977 when the start of the fiscal year was shifted from July 1 to October 1 is not included). The data for FY 2020 is current as of February 2020 and therefore does not include supplemental appropriations enacted in response to Covid-19.
The data was adjusted for inflation using the GDP Chained Price Index published in Historical Table 10.1 with a base year of FY 2021.
The government budget data compiled in the interactive reflects federal budget authority organized both by federal agency or department, and by budget function. Budget authority refers to the funding appropriated by Congress for spending over a given period, as opposed to outlays, which refer to the funds taken from the Treasury in payment.
In addition to being organized by agency or department, government funding can be broken into budget functions. This accounting method groups funding for similar activities together regardless of the organization that spends those dollars. Budget functions are then further divided into subfunctions. For example, “050 National Defense” is divided into “051 Department of Defense – Military,” “053 Atomic Energy Defense Activities,” and “054 Defense-related Activities.”
There are also different types of government funding. Discretionary funding refers to budget authority provided by annual appropriations passed by Congress. Mandatory funding, also known as direct funding, is budget authority provided by permanent appropriations that continue in perpetuity unless modified by Congress. Mandatory funding for programs like Social Security and Medicare and some veterans’ benefits and services do not require an annual appropriations act from Congress each year and is instead provided automatically by formulas specified in law.
This interactive is a product of the Andreas C. Dracopoulos iDeas Lab, the in-house digital, multimedia, and design agency at the Center for Strategic and International Studies.
(Photo Credit: Samuel Corum / Stringer)