writing figures on chalkboard

Congressional Appropriations Process

horizontal dots

Knowing how the Congressional Appropriations process works is the key to developing a strategy to ensure federal funding for Environmental Education. We have provided a description of the process below so you might better understand our strategy and the importance of your participation.

Purpose and Structure

The purpose of the Congressional Appropriations process is to lay out the specific distribution of federal funds for the coming fiscal year. This process focuses on budget authority for approximately 1/3 of federal outlays?that is, spending for discretionary programs.

In other words, it is up to the discretion of the House and Senate Appropriations Committees to decide if - and by how much - to fund such programs through the allocation of an annual appropriation. These Appropriations Committees are divided into subcommittees - each assigned its own federal jurisdiction. Leadership for these subcommittees is provided by a Chair (a member of the majority party) and by a Ranking Member (a member of the minority party).

The President Proposes a Budget

The budget process officially begins on the first Monday of February when the President submits his budget proposal to Congress for the coming fiscal year. While it is not law, this proposal is a comprehensive examination of overall federal revenues and spending. These figures are based on several factors, including funding levels from the immediate past fiscal year as well as his administration's assessment (developed by the Office of Management and Budget) of the efficacy of each program or agency receiving funding.

Next, the House and Senate Budget Committees receive testimony from government officials, issue experts, and other Members of Congress in response to the President's proposed estimates. Based on this input, the Budget Committees then produce a budget resolution - a blueprint for Congress that outlines the overall size of the federal budget and of broad functional categories. The latter translates into the amounts allocated to each Appropriations Committee.

Since the resolution is not actual legislation, it does not require Presidential approval. It must, however, be approved by both the House and the Senate which may, in fact, pass different versions of the resolution. In that case, the differences are resolved by a joint House-Senate conference committee. The agreed-upon resolution then returns to each house of Congress for a new vote. Although the final resolution is scheduled to be completed by April 15th, it is often delayed. If a final resolution has not been passed by May 15th, the House may begin consideration of annual appropriations bills.

From Budget to Appropriations

Once the final resolution has passed, the House and Senate Appropriations Committees divide its total funding allocation among each of its respective subcommittees. The subcommittees then spend May and June meeting with constituents and issue experts in order to decide how to carve up its portion of the total allocation. Here, the subcommittees' greatest challenge is to balance stakeholder concerns with spending priorities set by the Administration.

Next, each subcommittee staff "marks up" its own spending bill in June and July, reflecting its chosen spending priorities. Once mark-ups are complete, the entire subcommittee assembles to approve the final version of its own spending bill proposal. The proposal then goes to the entire Appropriations Committee which can make changes to the bill before passing it to the House and Senate floors for a vote.

Once a version of the bill is approved in both the House and the Senate, any discrepancies between the two are resolved by a joint House-Senate conference committee. Usually, the conference committee concerns itself only with those items that are in dispute between the two bill versions, proposing either new language or deferral to the other house. Finally, a new version - a conference report - is then sent back to both houses for a fresh vote. If, at this point, any further disagreements arise between the two houses, the bill must return to the conference committee and undergo the same process until an identical bill has been passed by both the House and the Senate.

Presidential Approval

This final bill is then sent to the President's desk for its last round of approval. If the President chooses to sign the bill, it becomes law, thereby setting discretionary spending for the coming fiscal year. As such, Presidential approval completes the process for each subcommittee's individual bill. If, however, the President chooses to veto the bill, at least two-thirds of Congress must vote to override the veto. If this critical mass is not achieved, Congress must return to the drawing board and attempt to resolve the President's concerns.

The chief deadline for passing funding bills is September 30th, the end of the federal government's fiscal year. As a result, the month of September normally augurs heavy workloads as staff and Members attempt to finalize the appropriations process. As the past few years have witnessed, however, the appropriations work often remains incomplete by this date. In this case, the government "shuts down," a reality that requires passage of "continuing resolutions" permitting the government to temporarily operate at funding levels established during the previous fiscal year.

How You Can Make a Difference

While the appropriations process may seem long and confusing, its many steps provide numerous opportunities to impact the current funding proposal. Of course, as the process moves forward, the bill becomes further and further entrenched in bureaucracy and "politics," making the bill less amenable to changes as time passes. Regardless, it is most important to remember that any constituent can make a difference by making a phone call or by sending an email to his / her Members of Congress, be they leaders on an Appropriations subcommittee or not. Remember that every Member of Congress casts a vote on each spending bill when it comes to the house floors for a full vote.