Congress’s Vital Committees on Appropriations


WASHINGTON, D.C. — The U.S. government does not spend a cent without the approval of the House of Representatives and Senate Committees on Appropriations. Committee members must review and amend the President’s budget plans before the beginning of each fiscal year, ultimately crafting a comprehensive plan for the nation’s spending.

This year, the committees’ decisions matter more than ever, with the International Affairs Budget hanging in the balance. President Trump has proposed drastic cuts to the budget, threatening vital international agencies such as The United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF) and the U.S. African Development Foundation. The proposed cuts additionally jeopardize American leadership in the developing world and withhold the vital support required to stabilize countries in need, endangering the entire world. All that stands between the President’s dangerous proposals and the world’s most vulnerable are these Congressional committees.

The House and Senate Committees on Appropriations have not always wielded such sweeping political power and economic influence. In fact, the budgeting duties the appropriations committees now share once belonged to different committees altogether. Until 1865, the Committee on Ways and Means fulfilled all the appropriation responsibilities of the House of Representatives. The committee only needed one general appropriations bill to handle all expenditures of the federal government. Today, there are 13 total appropriation bills in the House of Representatives Committee on Appropriations alone.

The Senate followed suit in 1867, redistributing the Senate Finance Committee’s appropriation responsibilities to its new Committee on Appropriations. The purpose of the division was “to divide the onerous labors of the Finance Committee with another committee,” according to Rhode Island Senator Henry B. Anthony.

The Committees on Appropriations work annually to finalize their budget plans for the upcoming fiscal year, which begins each October. The appropriations process begins when the president submits a budget request to Congress. The separate House and Senate Committees on Appropriations then review and propose resolutions for the budget, ironing out the differences in a conference committee.

Next, the various House and Senate appropriation subcommittees markup and vote on their budget plans. Each chamber of Congress has 12 subcommittees, whose jurisdictions range from U.S. defense to agriculture to transportation. Like the greater Committees on Appropriations, each subcommittee is led by a chairman of the Congressional chamber’s majority party and a ranking member of the minority party.

After a series of hearings and votes, the subcommittees send their drafted bills to the House and Senate Committees on Appropriations at large. The committees then markup the bills and bring them to the House and Senate floors. Finally, the bills are brought to a conference committee and voted on one final time before they are sent to the president. The president can either sign the bills into fruition or veto them.

If the President does not sign the appropriations bills before October 1, Congress will authorize a “Continuing Resolution.” This measure keeps federal appropriations at “status quo levels” for a while to avoid government shutdown. No new appropriation measures are enacted at this time.

Today, the Committee on Appropriations is the largest Senate committee and one of the largest House committees. This reflects the growing breadth of the committees, which have increased their budgeting dramatically over the last two and a quarter centuries. While the original Congressional appropriations bill allocated $639,000 in funds, the committees appropriated nearly $1.070 trillion in funds for the Fiscal Year 2017.

There are various measures in place that ensure transparency within the Committees on Appropriations so that constituents may follow the committees’ activities. Most of the Senate committee’s hearings are open to the public, for example, and all hearings and markups are streamed live. The House and Senate websites also feature educational resources so that citizens may learn more about the appropriations process. That way, voters may remain informed about the activities of some of Congress’s most powerful legislators.

Whether they are voting on the Fiscal Year 2018 budget or reviewing President Trump’s proposed appropriations for the State Department budget, the House and Senate Committees on Appropriations possess immense political power. The government may not spend money without the committees’ approval, as stated in Article 1, Section 9 of the U.S. Constitution: “No money shall be drawn from the Treasury, but in consequence of Appropriations made by law.” Therefore, the committees’ decisions directly affect how well the government can enact and support various federal programs.

Visit the House and Senate Committees on Appropriations websites to track the appropriations bills for the upcoming fiscal year and learn more about the International Affairs Budget.

Sabine Poux

Photo: Flickr


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