Discretionary spending is government spending determined by legislators and other people involved in the process of developing a budget. This spending is sometimes described as "optional," although it is in fact for very important things. A related term is non-defense discretionary spending, used to describe all discretionary spending that is not related to the defense budget.
When governments set budgets, part of the budget is mandatory. This segment of the budget is established by entitlement programs that have funding mandates. People creating the budget cannot change the amount of funding in this section of the budget without revising the laws that pertain to these entitlement programs. The remainder of the budget consists of discretionary spending, and when people "balance" the budget, they attempt to meet the needs of the government with the available funds.
Lawmakers use a number of means to determine how funds should be allocated. Some turn to organizations that benefit from government funds to find out how much money these organizations need or want. Studies may be conducted to discuss potential areas where spending could be cut or adjusted. Budget makers also discuss proposed projects and mechanisms for funding them. This can include committee hearings with people involved in such projects to give them an opportunity to explain their projects, demonstrate their benefits, and petition for funds.
The topic of discretionary spending can become quite contentious. Some critics argue that most government programs are overfunded, and that funding should be cut or frozen, especially during periods of economic uncertainty. Lawmakers tend to argue while setting the budget as everyone involved attempts to secure money for constituents at home. As budget negotiations proceed, the people involved work to come to arrangements that will allow the budget to balance while still satisfying funding requests and keeping constituents and supporters happy. This can include calculated decisions to take on debt during the budget cycle.
Defense spending is part of the discretionary spending budget, but it is often exempted from discussions about freezing or cutting spending. Especially if a country is at war, lawmakers argue that interfering with the defense budget could result in security shortfalls. This could expose a nation to unreasonable security risks that might threaten the stability of the government and safety of members of the armed forces. Since defense spending can make a sizable portion of the budget, refusal to consider cuts to defense spending can limit options for cutting spending overall.