The request by the White House budget office Friday for an 8.4% increase in agency operating budgets spells out Biden’s top priorities as Congress weighs its spending plans for next year. It’s the first financial outline of the Democrats’ broader ambitions since the expiration of a 2011 law that capped congressional spending.
“I’m hoping it’ll have some bipartisan support across the board,” Biden said before an Oval Office meeting with his economics team, though prominent Senate Republicans immediately complained the plan would shortchange the military and national security in boosting domestic programs.
Bipartisanship in 2011 also restricted Democrats’ ambitions, a problem they’re now trying to address. White House press secretary Jen Psaki said the administration was “inheriting a legacy of chronic underinvestment” because of the caps.
“The president is focused on reversing this trend and reinvesting in the foundations of our strength,” she told reporters at a briefing.
At stake is “discretionary spending,” roughly one-third of the huge federal budget that is passed by Congress each year, funding the military, domestic Cabinet department operations, foreign policy and homeland security. The rest of the budget involves so-called mandatory programs with locked-in spending, chiefly Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid.
The Biden request provides a significantly smaller 1.6% increase for the $700 billion-plus Pentagon budget than for domestic accounts. Homeland security accounts would basically be frozen, reflecting opposition among Democratic progressives to immigration security forces.
“Talk is cheap, but defending our country is not,” they said. “We can’t afford to fail in our constitutional responsibility to provide for the common defense. To keep America strong, we must balance domestic and defense spending priorities.”
The Biden administration believes the caps, imposed by a long-abandoned 2011 budget deal, caused a decade of severe underinvestment in public services that the president is now trying to turn around with large increases that would mostly bypass national security programs.
The administration says the request would bring spending in line with historical averages. It seeks $769 billion in non-defense discretionary funding, about equal to the 30-year average relative to the overall U.S. economy.
Biden wants to increase the Education Department’s budget by a massive 40.8% to $102.8 billion, which includes an additional $20 billion in grants for high-poverty schools.
The Department of Health and Human Services would get a 23.1% boost to $133.7 billion. There would be additional funds to combat opioid addiction and for the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, whose mission took on new urgency during the coronavirus pandemic. The administration is also asking for $6.5 billion to establish a biomedical research agency to address cancer, diabetes, Alzheimer’s and other diseases.
Biden is seeking a $14 billion increase across government agencies to address climate change. It’s part of a whole-of-government approach to the climate crisis that includes billions to boost environmental justice for communities near refineries, power plants and other hazardous sites.
Passing the president’s plan as written through Congress is typically a long shot. Recent history and guaranteed conflicts with Republicans are likely to force lawmakers to put discretionary accounts on autopilot for months after the Sept. 30 expiration of the budget year.
The plan also details how the Biden administration will try to deal with the influx of arrivals at the U.S. southern border. It includes $861 million to invest in Central America to address the forces driving people to migrate to the United States. An additional $345 million would go to immigration services to resolve delays in years-long naturalization and asylum cases. The budget for the Executive Office of Immigration Review would jump 21% to $891 million in order to hire 100 new immigration judges and support teams to reduce the existing backlogs.
The president seeks modest increases for national security. Defense — the largest department in the discretionary plan — would get a 1.6% increase to $715 billion. Homeland Security would edge up 0.2% to $52 billion.
But the administration views diplomacy as a way to engage with the wider world. It’s pursuing a 12% increase in funding for the State Department and the U.S. Agency for International Development, taking their spending to $63.5 billion.
Friday’s request does not include plans for tax revenues or mandatory federal spending. Nor does it include the planned spending in Biden’s infrastructure plan. A fuller budget proposal will be released later this spring.