About the Congressional Budget and Appropriations Process
An overview of the process with a focus on engagement opportunities for Trout Unlimited advocates.
The following post is about the Budget and Appropriations process, for information on why this process matters for TU and for coldwater fisheries, please check out the following post:
About the Budget and Appropriations process:
Congress is tasked with producing a budget resolution and 12 appropriations bills for each federal fiscal year. Budget and appropriations only deal with discretionary spending, this is funding for programs that can be changed every year. Some funding cannot be changed because it’s specified in a law that a certain amount of money must go to said program. This type of spending is called entitlement (or mandatory) spending and cannot be changed by congress during the appropriations process. Other funding legislation, such as emergency funding in response to a natural disaster, frequently occurs outside of the standard process.
The Budget and Appropriations process is an ongoing cycle: The President submits his or her budget proposal to Congress by the end of February for the following fiscal year; Congress, through the Appropriations Committee, reviews the budget and allocates funding for various agencies and programs and returns final appropriations bills back to the President for signature in advance of October 1st, the start of the federal fiscal year. Around that same time, the next budget process is already kicking off inside the Administration and agencies, planning for the following year’s budget request.
…..Let’s break this down and look for places to engage.
Administration / President’s Budget Request
The Federal Fiscal Year begins in October. From approximately November through February of Fiscal Year 1, the Administration works to develop it’s budget request for Fiscal Year 2.
(October — December) Agencies develop internal budget requests for inclusion in President’s overall Budget Request to Congress. Federal agencies review their programs and submit requests to the Office of Management and Budget (OMB) for funding in the following year’s budget.
Opportunity to engage with agencies directly to promote programs.
Opportunity to engage with outreach to OMB and letters to POTUS.
- Example: TU letter to OMB re: Chesapeake Bay funding (FY17).
(December — January) President works with OMB to develop overall Administration Budget Request. After the individual agency budget requests have been consolidated, the President works with the Office of Management and Budget to develop an overall budget request for the following fiscal year.
(February) POTUS Submits Budget Request to Congress: POTUS budget request is due to Congress by early February, but often times the deadline slips, especially following a change of Administration, such as this year.
The President’s budget request is not automatically accepted by Congress, but offers insight into the President’s priorities.
→ → Hand-off from Administration to Congress: The Appropriations process begins! → →
Congressional Appropriations Process
After the President submits the Budget Request to Congress, the request goes first to the Budget Committee and then to the Appropriations Committees.
From approximately February through September of the current fiscal year, Congress works to review the President's budget and approve a spending plan for the next fiscal year (which begins on October 1st).
Budget Committee Takes First Swing
(February — March) BUDGET Committee sets top line spending numbers for defense and non-defense programs: The Budget Committee meets to review the Presidential request and determine overall funding allocations for the agencies — those allocations are delivered to the appropriations committees who will work within those allocations to set program specific funding levels.
(April 15th-ish) Congressional Budget Resolution issued. Around mid-April, Congress is expected to set the total level of discretionary funding (known as the “302a allocation”) for the next fiscal year. (due April 15th, often late).
When the chamber is divided between parties, often the budget resolution will be concurrent. Sometimes, each chamber will pass its own resolution, or simply pass a “deeming resolution,” a simplified resolution which sets the 302a allocation without advancing a budget.
Often laden with policy riders and “messaging” measures. Due to their non-legislative status, these proposals are understood to be an effort by the majority to send a message about their fiscal priorities.
→ → Budget Committee sets spending caps for discretionary spending, then hands-off to Appropriations Committee. → →
Appropriations Committee Deals with the Details
The Budget moves from the Budget Committee to the Appropriations Committee, where different sections are broken out across a number of sub-committees. Congress’ role in the appropriations process is defined by the U.S. Constitution, which requires “appropriations made by law” prior to the expenditure of any money from the Federal treasury.
The Appropriations Committee writes the legislation that allocates federal funds to the numerous government agencies, departments, and organizations on an annual basis. The Committee is also responsible for supplemental spending bills, which are sometimes needed in the middle of a fiscal year to compensate for emergency expenses.
Twelve subcommittees are tasked with drafting legislation to allocate funds to government agencies within their jurisdictions. These subcommittees are responsible for reviewing the President’s budget request, hearing testimony from government officials and other witnesses, and drafting the spending plans for the coming fiscal year. Their work is passed up to the full Appropriations Committees, which may review and modify the bills and advance them for consideration on the House and Senate floor.
(March — July) Appropriations hearings and bill drafting begins at Subcommittee level: Starting in March, the various subcommittees hold hearings to review program requests and to allocate funds among programs within their jurisdiction. This provides an opportunity for engagement through direct outreach to members of the appropriations subcommittees.
Action Item: Write letters to appropriators advocating for funding to key programs; provide examples of how the funds are being put to good use and present a compelling story as to why funding should continue.
*Note that TU will send a letter to each committee highlighting our interests — please send us your project stories to help inform our advocacy communications:
- Example Committee Letter: TU Letter to Appropriations Subcommittee on Interior and Related Agencies (FY17)
- Example Member Letter: TU Request Form to Senators Wyden and Merkley (FY17)
Action Items: In addition to letters, consider meeting with your Members of Congress directly — either through staff at the local office or through coordination with the D.C. Government affairs team — to educate them about the importance of the federal funding for programs of interest. For TU staff and volunteers, please communicate about your efforts with the D.C. team to ensure we present well-coordinated communications across the TU family.
- Example Advocacy Document highlighting Federal programs important to the Chesapeake Bay Watershed
(August) Members of Congress return to their districts to meet with constituents during the August recess.
Action Items: Take advantage of your home field advantage and invite your Members of Congress to visit a project in their state or district to help draw the connection between the program funding and on the ground benefit in the Congressional district.
- Check this town hall finder and TU Guide to Town Hall Meetings for tips on engaging with elected officials
(Sept — Oct) Appropriators send appropriation bills back to POTUS.
The fiscal year begins on October 1st and law requires that Congress approve federal budgets for the agencies by September 30th. All appropriations bills are supposed to be passed in “regular order,” meaning full passage of all 12 bills through both chambers and which are then signed by the president by the start of the federal fiscal year on Oct. 1.
What if that doesn’t happen? See note below regarding omnibus spending bills and continuing resolutions.
POTUS signs (or vetoes) the Appropriations bills and the process begins again for the next year.
Collect $200 and Pass Go, we’ve made it!
That’s it? That’s all? Hold up, I’ve got some questions:
- What happens if Congress fails to pass appropriations bills?
If Congress is unable to pass any one of the 12 appropriations bills, they must issue a Continuing Resolution (CR) to allow spending to continue under the current budget levels until a solution is developed. In the absence of a CR, agencies and programs under the jurisdiction of that particular appropriations bill would be forced to shut down at the start of the new fiscal year.
- Do all 12 bills need to pass at the same time?
No. Sometimes specific subcommittees are unable to advance their appropriations bills. If one or more bill cannot advance, Congress will need to either (a) agree to a Continuing Resolution, which will carry forward the current funding levels for that portion of the budget until such time as a new spending bill can pass; or (b) find a way to package the stalled bill together with other spending bills to advance under a single vote (known as an “omnibus” or “minibus.”
Continuing Resolutions can last for as little as a day but usually are for a number of weeks or months, and are renewed when negotiations extend beyond the new deadline. CRs also can contain policy provisions and revisions to funding levels.
- Omnibus sounds fun! Tell me more about that… Is an omnibus like a party-bus?
A procedural option to advancing hard to resolve spending bills is to bundle a whole mess of bills together under a single vote — requiring legislators to take the bad with the good and the good with the bad. This is what’s known as an Omnibus spending package (when there are fewer bills bundled together, it is sometimes called a minibus).
Packaging all or a number of appropriation bills together creates what are called omnibus or minibus measures. These bills appropriate money to operate the federal government and make national policy in scores of areas. These omnibus bills grant large powers to a small number of people who put these packages together — party and committee leaders and top executive officials. Omnibus measures usually arouse the irk of the rank-and-file members of Congress because typically little time is available in the final days of a session to debate these massive measures or to know what is in them. Absent enactment of annual appropriation bills or a CR, federal agencies must shut down, furloughing their employees. Moreover, “uncertainty about final appropriations leads many [federal] managers to hoard funds; in some cases, hiring and purchasing stops.”
— Walter J. Oleszek. Congressional Procedures and the Policy Process. 2010:14
Contact us: For questions about this post or to learn more about the budget and appropriations process, please contact the Government Affairs team (firstname.lastname@example.org).
The FY19 Budget Request and Key Conservation Programs: Read our post about the significance of Conservation Program Funding and how key programs fare in the President’s FY19 Budget Request.
About the Agencies and Programs: Check out the Agency in Brief series to learn more about these key agencies and programs:
- Agency in Brief: The Environmental Protection Agency.
- Agency in Brief: The Department of the Interior.
- Agency in Brief: U.S. Department of Agriculture
- Agency in Brief: NOAA and the National Marine Fisheries Service
- The Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, Introduction to the Federal Budget Process.
- CRS Report for Congress, The Congressional Appropriations Process: An Introduction (pdf).