With the health-care legislation completed and the climate-change debate derailed by the BP oil disaster, Congress should get to work on the federal budget. Yet Capitol Hill has been slow to tackle this perennial challenge.

Even though entitlement programs–Medicare, Medicaid, and Social Security–and other mandatory spending absorb two-thirds of the budget, lawmakers tend to focus most on everything else.

The part of the budget that Congress debates and decides on every year is called “discretionary spending.” It includes what we spend on the military, education, housing, the environment, energy, and science. The Obama administration has requested almost $1.3 trillion in discretionary spending for the 2011 fiscal year, which begins in October.

As in recent years, military spending accounts for over half of the 2011 discretionary request: 58 percent. In January, President Barack Obama announced plans to freeze spending for many discretionary programs for three years to control the government’s spiraling debt. However, he exempted from this freeze “security-related” programs including the Pentagon, foreign aid, veterans’ programs, and homeland security.

This will inevitably put pressure on other discretionary programs, most of which are intended to meet critical domestic needs. These programs include funding for schools in low-income neighborhoods, farm subsidies that help stabilize food costs, and child nutrition programs. They also include our nation’s air traffic control network. They fund the federal agencies that ensure workplace safety, perform food inspections, test prescription drugs, and regulate banking and financial institutions. They even fund our national parks.

Non-security discretionary programs are already being squeezed by our nation’s rising military spending, which has been growing for about a decade. While domestic spending increased by approximately 24 percent from FY 2001 to FY 2010, military spending (including war costs) surged 71 percent.

The proposed freeze is actually a cap on total domestic discretionary spending, beneath which funding levels would ebb and flow. Many domestic programs may be cut below the level of a freeze or eliminated all together to provide for increases in higher priority programs.

It’s important to note that the administration’s annual budget request is always a recommendation. Congress is under no obligation to accept all, or any of the president’s proposals. These types of cuts are difficult, particularly in an election year. Conversely, many senators and members of the House of Representatives are getting pressure from voters over concerns about the national debt and the projected $1.3 trillion FY 2011 deficit.

This situation calls for tough choices about national priorities. Ironically, Capitol Hill appears to be skipping the first round of debate. By April of each year Congress is supposed to develop a budget resolution creating its own guidelines for all areas of federal spending: military, education, housing, and so on. These guidelines shape subsequent spending legislation that specifically divides how funds will be allotted to each area.

As of mid-May only the Senate had begun work on determining overall spending levels, but with no scheduled plans to move forward. House leaders have indicated they may not do so at all, expressing unwillingness to endorse a budget that makes tough cuts or proposes huge deficits in an election year. Yet in doing so, Congress is foregoing a critical opportunity to endorse, or reshape, White House priorities.

Our nation needs strong leadership in these tough times. Domestic programs subject to the proposed freeze are critical to states and local communities, particularly in the current economic climate. Congress needs to exercise its full stewardship over how our tax dollars are spent as our nation navigates though these dire financial straits.

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Chris HellmanBy

Chris Hellman is communications liaison at the National Priorities Project in Northampton, MA. National Priorities Project analyzes and clarifies federal data so that people can understand and influence how their tax dollars are spent. www.nationalpriorities.org