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Legislative Process 101—Appropriations (aka Government Funding)

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. Sometimes this process starts a bit later, especially in the first year of a new president’s term as they are still staffing up the agencies and crunching the numbers on their priorities. The president’s budget is purely symbolic and they 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. 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, or just a couple packages referred to as “minibuses.” 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. Alternatively, one chamber can abandon the bills they passed and simply pass the version already approved by the other chamber. 

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 housing assistance, to international aid, to toxic waste cleanup funds. About half of discretionary spending goes to the military (which is not a dynamic we want to continue!). 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. Or in 2018 when Republicans refused to protect immigrants living here under the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program, leading to a shutdown. Or again later in 2018 when Republicans again forced a government shutdown by insisting on funds for a racist border wall. You get the picture. 

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 Fight for Progressive Priorities with This Knowledge?

Be sure your MoCs know what programs you believe need to be funded (or defunded!). This communication is most useful in the spring when Congress is at the start of the appropriations process, but can also be impactful as the bills go through committee and are amended on the floor. MoCs usually submit a list of their priorities to the Appropriations committee early in the year (usually February or March), and you can make sure your priorities are in your MoC’s request!

Also be on the lookout for Republican attempts to slash funding for key programs, or to insert harmful policy riders into an appropriations bill. We know that the Republican playbook is to take hostages, especially on key issues like government funding, so we have to be prepared to prevent that type of sabotage. 

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