Biden’s $1.5 trillion budget plan prioritizes domestic programs

President’s first budget aims to address economic and racial inequality, rebuild from the pandemic and combat climate change

President Joe Biden looks on during an event about gun violence prevention at the White House on April 8, 2021. (Brendan Smialowski/AFP via Getty Images)
President Joe Biden looks on during an event about gun violence prevention at the White House on April 8, 2021. (Brendan Smialowski/AFP via Getty Images)
Posted April 9, 2021 at 12:33pm

The White House on Friday unveiled a $1.52 trillion discretionary spending request for the coming fiscal year that would pump billions of additional dollars into education, health care and environmental protection while essentially holding the line on defense spending.

The Biden administration’s first budget request is designed to begin reversing nearly a decade of “broad disinvestment” in nondefense discretionary spending that has hurt the country’s ability to address economic and racial inequality, rebuild from a pandemic and combat climate change, acting White House budget director Shalanda Young said in a letter accompanying the fiscal 2022 discretionary budget request.

The proposal, essentially an outline of the forthcoming detailed request, marks a sharp break from the fiscal priorities of the Trump administration, which sought to beef up military spending and slash domestic spending, such as at the EPA.

President Joe Biden’s budget request would provide $769 billion for nondefense programs, a 16 percent increase over the current year’s level. National defense spending, by contrast, would amount to $753 billion — a nominal increase of 1.7 percent.

Big winners

Among the biggest winners is the Education Department, which would receive a 40.8 percent increase in base funding for the fiscal year that begins Oct. 1. The $102.8 billion request for the department includes $36.5 billion in so-called Title 1 grants for high-poverty schools — a $20 billion increase from this year’s level.

Another winner is the Department of Health and Human Services, which would get a 23.1 percent boost in base funding. The $133.7 billion request includes $6.5 billion for a proposed Advanced Research Projects Agency for Health within the National Institutes of Health to pursue research in diseases such as cancer, diabetes and Alzheimer’s.

And the Department of Housing and Urban Development would receive a 15.1 percent increase in base funding. The $68.7 billion request includes $30.4 billion for Housing Choice Vouchers, which are designed to assist more than 200,000 additional families who are homeless or fleeing domestic violence.

But in a move that is sure to unnerve Republicans, the budget allows for only a nominal increase in funding for the Defense Department. The base funding of $715 billion would amount to an increase of 1.6 percent over the $703.7 billion in funding for the base and overseas contingency operations combined in fiscal 2021.

In a break from the practice of the past two decades, the proposal would end emergency funding known as OCO that has been used to pay for military operations in Afghanistan and Iraq but has increasingly been tapped for the department's more routine expenses. The plan said it instead funds “direct war costs and enduring operations in the DOD base budget, a significant budgetary reform.” In fiscal 2021, Congress provided $69 billion for OCO.

The full budget request, containing mandatory spending programs and tax policies, is not expected until late spring. But the submission of a discretionary spending request allows Congress to begin writing appropriations bills for the coming fiscal year.

By law, the president is required to submit a budget in early February. But there is no penalty for missing that deadline and the first budget of a new administration typically comes late, as the White House needs time to get staff in place.

Not bound by spending caps

Biden’s budget is the first in a decade that will not be bound by statutory spending caps imposed as part of a deficit reduction effort in 2011. The absence of those caps gives the administration a freer hand in proposing spending increases, but it could also complicate efforts to amass the bipartisan support needed to pass appropriations bills.

In seeking to boost nondefense spending, the administration said the country needs more resources to address multiple crises, including a still-battered economy and climate change. Even as it sought to battle the COVID-19 pandemic, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention operated on funding 10 percent lower than it was a decade ago, adjusted for inflation, Young said in her letter.

The agency would get $8.7 billion in the coming year, the largest increase in budget authority in nearly two decades, Young said.

Similarly, the EPA has been cut by 27 percent since fiscal 2010, adjusted for inflation, Young said. “The President believes now is the time to begin reversing this trend—and the expiration of nearly a decade of budget caps presents a unique opportunity to do so,” she said.

The increase in nondefense spending would restore its level to about 3.3 percent of gross domestic product — “roughly equal to the historical average over the last 30 years,” Young said.

The administration would boost the IRS budget by 10 percent to $13.2 billion, the highest level since 2011. The agency’s budget has been squeezed since then and actually shrunk after allegations in 2013 that it had targeted conservative nonprofit groups. Democrats have vowed to increase funding with an eye toward collecting more of the nearly $400 billion a year in taxes that Americans are estimated to evade each year.

At a March hearing, IRS Commissioner Charles Rettig noted that since 2010 the number of enforcement personnel at the agency has declined by 15,000. At the same time, the percentage of taxpayers under audit who earn $10 million or more has declined by at least two-thirds. In 2010, the agency audited 23 percent of these high earners, Rettig said.

Among other fiscal priorities, the administration would provide $1 billion for the Justice Department’s Violence Against Women Act programs — nearly double this year’s level.

The Justice Department also would get $2.1 billion, an increase of $232 million over this year’s level, to combat gun violence.

And on the immigration front, the White House would provide $861 million in assistance to Central America to “address the root causes of irregular migration.” And the Executive Office for Immigration Review would get $891 million, a 21 percent increase, to hire 100 new immigration judges and reduce court backlogs.

Despite the surge at the southern border, the proposal asks for $52 billion for the Homeland Security Department, approximately equal to the 2021 enacted level. The budget “includes no additional funding for border wall construction and proposes cancellation of prior-year balances that are unobligated at the end of 2021.”

Paul M. Krawzak and Doug Sword contributed to this report.