Legislative Process 101—Appropriations (or “Keeping the Lights On”)

Explainers | May 22, 2017

This document reviews one of Congress’ most fundamental responsibilities, called appropriations.

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Our government spends a lot of money (trillions of dollars) every year. Naturally, Congress, which is given the power of the purse by the Constitution, spends a lot of time deciding how much to spend and what to spend it on. Let’s start at the beginning.

The President’s Budget: Does It Matter?

The process to pass yearly appropriations starts in February when the President is supposed to release a budget proposal. The president’s budget is purely symbolic and he can’t make Congress fund his priorities. Still, when Congress and the White House are controlled by the same party, the president’s budget is worth a close look to get a sense of what programs they want to cut or grow.

Budget Resolution

Next, Congress passes a budget resolution, usually in the spring (but they can pass it whenever, really). This resolution, which isn’t signed by the president, sets out the target for how much money Congress expects to spend in a given year. It also kicks off the reconciliation process if the party controlling Congress wants to monkey with mandatory spending (explained below) or taxes.

Regular Order on Appropriations

Control over what programs get the thumbs up or thumbs down rests foremost with the Committees on Appropriations in the Senate and House. Each chamber has a set of subcommittees with jurisdiction over particular agencies.

According to regular order, the subcommittees hold public hearings, usually throughout early spring  and markup individual bills based on a spending limit set out for each of them in the budget resolution discussed above. We typically see Defense Appropriations completed earlier rather than later. Ultimately, each subcommittee produces a bill detailing how much money goes to each federal program in their jurisdiction.

Next, each bill is considered and approved by the full appropriations committee, then sent to the House and Senate floors for a vote in late summer or early fall. Sometimes they are packaged together into one big appropriations bill called an omnibus bill. Omnibus bills are a sign that Congress is not functioning under regular order, and this has been happening more and more recently. If the Senate or House pass different bills, they have to work to resolve the differences and pass it again.

This Is Important: Mandatory vs. Discretionary Spending

Surprisingly, Congress doesn’t actually get to play around with all federal spending every year. About two-thirds of the dollars leaving the Treasury are known as mandatory spending. These funds go to programs that the government, by law, has obligated itself to run regardless of cost, like Medicare, Medicaid and Social Security. These programs are often referred to as entitlements, since a person is “entitled” to benefits if they’re eligible, and not based on whether Congress decides to fund them or not.

When we talk about appropriations, we’re really talking about discretionary spending. The remaining third of annual spending is discretionary funding. This includes everything from public safety grants, to international aid, to toxic waste cleanup funds (and no, we’re not talking about the White House janitors). About half of discretionary spending goes to the military. Congress gets to decide whether or not to fund these programs, and by how much.

What Happens If Congress Fails to Enact an Appropriations Bill?

The federal government’s funding runs from October through September of the following year. This is called the fiscal year. If September 30th comes and Congress hasn’t passed all of its appropriations bills, the federal government shuts down until they get their act together. Typically, this happens because of political gridlock, like in 2013 when Republicans shut down the government in an effort to defund the Affordable Care Act.

If Congress is simply taking too long and the September 30th deadline is looming, MoCs will give themselves an extension called a continuing resolution (CR), maintaining current funding levels until they can actually pass spending bills. Congress passes a lot of CRs these days.

How Can I Resist the Trump Agenda with This Knowledge?

Trump and Congressional Republicans are going to try and cut funding for programs that increase educational opportunities for children, aid the health and wellness of everyday Americans, cut pollution, and assist war-torn countries. All of this will be in service of increasing military spending and building that wall. Influencing appropriations and stopping these cuts is all about persistence, timing, and knowing who matters.

If you hear cuts are coming to a program you care about, always tell your member of Congress. Tell them often. Members are flooded with appropriations requests from hundreds of interests, so it’s easy for your advocacy to get lost unless you’re persistent. Be as specific as you can about the name of the program and how much funding you’re asking for it. Do this all year.

Tell them also what programs you don’t want fundedlike that wall.

But make most of your contacts in the spring! MoCs  set deadlines for appropriations requests in February and March. Make sure your MoCs includes your priorities in their request.

Lastly, find out if your MoC is on the appropriations subcommittee for your issue, or at least on the full Appropriations Committee. The House Appropriations Committee members can be found here, and here for the Senate. They’re the ones with all the power here. If your MoC isn’t on the committee, that’s okay! You should still focus on your two senators and representative since they can lobby those who are on the committees to make sure your priorities are considered.