When Congress returns from the recess, one of the first items on the agenda will be the annual Congressional budget resolution. The staff for the Budget and Appropriations Committees has been busy over the recess, and it is likely that we will see a flurry of budget related activities over the next few weeks.
Since the President’s budget was released on February 1st, the Budget and Appropriations Committees have been holding a series of hearings on various components of the President’s budget. Now that the speeches have been made and the questions have been asked, the focus will shift from hearings to the often time consuming process of crafting the budget resolution and the annual appropriations bills.
In the weeks ahead, we will be hearing and reading a lot about the President’s budget, the Congressional Budget resolution, and appropriations bills. These terms are frequently used together, though each of them has a distinct purpose and role to play in the budget process.
The President’s Budget is typically released on the first Monday in February. It is a detailed request for budget authority for every federal program ranging from the Department of Defense to the Environmental Protection Agency, to everything in between. The President’s budget is presented to Congress, but the specific recommendations included in it are not binding on Congress. Since Article I of the Constitution gives Congress the power to appropriate (often referred to as the “power of the purse”) Congress ultimately has the authority to determine the specific spending levels for each account. Depending on the President’s standing with Congress, his budget can either be very influential or promptly declared “dead on arrival” as Presidents have often experienced when Congress is not controlled by the same political party.
After the President’s budget is released and hearings are held, Congress begins the process of developing the Congressional Budget Resolution. The budget resolution is a nonbinding blueprint, which establishes funding levels to guide Congress as it considers spending and revenue legislation during the year. The budget resolution is a concurrent resolution that is passed by both the House and Senate. Since it is intended to guide Congress, it is not signed by the President and does not have the force of law. Shortly after Congress returns, the House and Senate Budget Committees will hold “mark-ups” which are business meetings that the committees use to consider the annual budget resolutions. The Budget Act requires action on the Budget Resolution to be completed by April 15th, though there is no penalty for missing the deadline and it is rarely met. (According to the Congressional Research Service, since the time table was established in 1974, Congress has met the budget resolution deadline only six times, most recently in 2003 for the FY 2004 Budget Resolution).
One component of the budget resolution that often receives a great deal of attention is the allocation to the House and Senate Appropriations Committees. This is referred to as a 302(a) allocation (the section of the Budget Act that created the allocation), and it sets the total amount of spending that will be available for the year’s appropriations bills. After receiving the 302(a) allocation, the Appropriations Committee allocates the funding to the twelve subcommittees using what are referred to as 302(b) allocations. The subcommittees then use these allocations to begin writing the twelve annual appropriations bills.
There are important distinctions to bear in mind between the budget resolution and appropriations bills. Unlike the budget resolution, an appropriations bill is binding legislation that is signed into law by the President. While the budget resolution includes an overall spending allocation to the Appropriations Committee, the Budget Committee does not decide the specifics of which accounts or agencies will receive the funding. Determining the details of how the allocation will be used is the responsibility of the Appropriations Committees (and other committees that receive allocations).
After the recess, one of the first priorities for the Appropriations Committee will likely be considering an FY 2010 supplemental spending bill. Supplemental spending bills are usually considered each spring and are intended to provide funding for wars, natural disasters, and other unforeseen events that could not be funded through the regular appropriations process. The President’s budget included a request for $47 billion in supplemental funding to fund war related activities, provide disaster relief, and other purposes. Since then, the President has also requested additional supplemental funding for purposes such as providing aid to Haiti after the earthquake.
Typically, supplemental funding includes an emergency designation which exempts it from the Appropriations Committee’s 302(a) allocation. In recent years, supplemental spending has increased significantly and Congress has often used the emergency designation as a budget gimmick to get around limits on discretionary spending. While many of the items included in supplementals clearly are emergencies, the bills also frequently include items that are not emergencies and are included for the sole purpose of evading the budget resolution’s spending limits.
After the FY 2010 supplemental is completed, the Appropriations Committees will then turn to passing the 12 annual appropriations bills for FY 2011. Traditionally, the bills are considered first in the House and then move to the Senate, where the Senate’s tradition of unlimited debate often results in a considerably longer process. The goal is for the budget and appropriations process to be completed in time for the President to sign all of the appropriations bills into law by October 1st (the start of the new fiscal year). Like most deadlines in the budget process, this is rarely met.
In recent years, complications and delays have become a routine part of the budget process. This is particularly a problem in election years when there is pressure for Congress to finish early to campaign and there are few incentives for a party that hopes to gain seats in November to cooperate. In some years, agreement on a budget resolution has been delayed (or never reached) and a procedural step called a deeming resolution has been used to consider appropriations bills without passing a final budget resolution. In other years, the budget resolutions have passed, but the appropriations process has continued long past the start of the fiscal year.
When the appropriations process is delayed, Congress often uses continuing resolutions (CR’s) and omnibus appropriations bills. A continuing resolution is a resolution passed by Congress to continue funding the government (usually at existing funding levels) when all of the appropriations bills have not been enacted prior to the start of the new fiscal year. Without a CR, the government would not be funded and would be forced to shut down. An omnibus appropriations bill is a single bill used to combine several appropriations bills that have not passed individually. During the FY 2010 process, several continuing resolutions were passed and the final appropriations bill was not signed into law until 12/19/09. The FY 2009 process was not completed until all of the appropriations bills were wrapped into an omnibus that was finally signed into law on 3/11/09, several months after the start of the new fiscal year.
As we move toward the busiest part of the budget and appropriations season, there are several key issues that The Concord Coalition will be following and a number of questions worth asking: