WASHINGTON — While most United States citizens associate Congress with the task of drafting new laws, it also serves another important purpose. The U.S. Constitution gives Congress the sole power to authorize government spending, and in a cycle called the appropriations process, Congress negotiates with the president to pass annual budgets that keep the federal government running.
On October 1, the annual government budgets expire and Congress must pass a new budget so the government can continue to function. Every government program, from welfare and social security to USAID and foreign aid programs, gets funding from these budgets.
Since the appropriations process affects all aspects of government, U.S. citizens should know how it works.
So what happens during the appropriations process? It begins when the president submits a budget to Congress. The budget contains requests for executive agencies to spend money along with justifications. The president’s budget is due the first Monday in February to give Congress time to review it, but Congress can extend the deadline if necessary.
Not all funding necessarily comes from a single February budget. In case of emergency, like natural disasters or the current border crisis, the president can request supplements for more funds. Congress reviews them and can then introduce legislation to authorize spending.
In the case of the border crisis, the House bill H.R. 5230 would give $659 million to border security agencies.
Congress must also introduce its own budget resolutions that recommend total spending levels and individual agency funding by April 15. These budget resolutions are not laws; rather, they help Congress compare the president’s budget to what it thinks should be spent.
Once each house of Congress receives the President’s budget, they separate it into twelve parts, with each concerning a specific aspect of government (for example, one for defense, another for agriculture.) These go to their respective appropriations subcommittees, where members evaluate the justifications with testimony from other government officials and make changes.
When the subcommittees finish, the budget parts recombine into two appropriations bills, one for the House and one for the Senate, and come to the floor for debate. Both houses can add new amendments, keeping in mind spending limits set by the Congressional budget resolutions.
After debate, the bills and amendments go to a vote like all other legislation.
Similarly, if bills pass both the House and the Senate, a conference committee of the two houses meets to resolve the bills’ differences, like other non-appropriations bills. Once the committee makes the changes, the revised bill goes to the individual chambers, where legislators can either send the bill back or vote on it.
If the revised bill passes both houses, it goes to the President, who can sign it into law and get government agencies their money.
The appropriations process is long, but it must be completed by October 1. If the government cannot pass a budget in time, Congress must pass a continuing resolution, or a measure that temporarily extends funding under the previous budget until a new one can pass. Otherwise, the government will shut down, as it did in October 2013.
Shutdowns prevent the government from getting revenue, keeping its workers employed and providing essential services to constituents.
Though it does not always receive as much attention as other parts of legislation, the appropriations process is one of the most important functions Congress serves. Giving agencies the authority to spend is how all programs, both foreign and domestic, keep running.
– Ted Rappleye
Sources: Congressional Research Service, The White House, House Appropriations Committee