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Action Tips and Tools: The Budget Process

A step-by-step primer on Congress's annual rite of numbers-crunching

Even to most Washington insiders the process of appropriating more than $500 billion in discretionary spending each year is murky. Essentially, however, the budget process is made up of four steps:

  1. Proposal
    The president initiates the annual budget process by presenting his budget proposal to Congress. This usually occurs in early February. Congress is free to adopt or reject any of the president's recommendations.

  2. Resolution
    Congress adopts a budget resolution to guide it as it acts on various spending bills. Although lacking the force of law, the resolution establishes targets and assumptions that often dictate results.

  3. Appropriations
    Each of the thirteen appropriations subcommittees divides the funds allocated to it in the budget resolution among the agency programs within its jurisdiction. Each appropriations bill must pass the House and Senate in identical form and be signed by the president. A procedural rule called a "point of order" can be raised on the House or Senate floor to block an appropriations bill inconsistent with the resolution.

  4. Reconciliation
    Congress often passes a reconciliation bill making changes to existing law so that it conforms with the numbers in the budget resolution. The budget process must be completed by September 30th, the end of the fiscal year. Often not all of the appropriations bills have been signed into law by that date, in which case Congress must pass a continuing resolution to provide temporary funding to keep the government running.
In addition, Congress often passes a rescission bill to revoke money appropriated for the current fiscal year, but not yet spent. Supplemental appropriations bills are enacted to provide funding in addition to that previously designated for the current fiscal year.

While the spotlight is usually on the big budget issues -- overall levels of taxes, spending, and entitlements -- the actual decisions about what to spend and what to cut are not made in the budget resolution, but in the thirteen separate appropriations bills. Contrary to what one might think, appropriations bills are not just about money. Because all 13 appropriations bills must be passed each year to keep the government operating, they offer a convenient target for legislators seeking to attach substantive provisions for special interests, called riders, that can significantly change existing laws.


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Communications Tips | Congressional Staff | Legislative Process | Budget Process

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