The vision of democracy is that the federal budget—and all activities of the federal government—reflects the values of a majority of Americans. Yet most people feel that the federal budget does not currently reflect their values and that the budgeting process is too complex to understand.
It is indeed a complicated process. Many forces shape the federal budget, some of them are forces written into law—like the president’s role in drafting the budget—while other forces stem from the realities of our political system.
And while the federal budget may not currently reflect the values of a majority of Americans, the ultimate power over the U.S. government lies with the people, because we have a right and responsibility to choose our elected officials by voting. Many Americans feel that it is difficult or impossible to make their voices heard in Washington, but the first step is to understand what’s going on.
The Constitution designates the “power of the purse” as a function of Congress.1 That includes the authority to create and collect taxes and to borrow money as needed. The Constitution does not, however, specify how Congress should exercise these powers or how the budgeting process should work. Nor does the Constitution specify a role for the president in managing the nation’s finances.
As a result Congress has established a process that has evolved over time. Over the course of the twentieth century, Congress passed key laws that shaped the budgeting process into what it is today, and formed the federal agencies—including the Office of Management and Budget, the Government Accountability Office, and the Congressional Budget Office—that provide oversight and research crucial to creating the budget. 2
The annual congressional budget process is officially called the appropriations process. Appropriations bills specify how much money will go to different agencies and programs. In addition to these funding bills, Congress must pass legislation that provides the federal government the legal authority to actually spend the money.3 These laws are called authorizations. Authorizations often cover multiple years, so authorizing legislation does not need to pass Congress every year the way appropriations bills do. When a multi-year authorization expires, Congress often passes a reauthorization to continue the programs in question.4
Authorizations also serve another purpose. There are some types of spending that are not subject to the appropriations process. Such spending is called direct or mandatory spending, and authorizations provide the legal authority for mandatory spending.5 Federal spending for Social Security and Medicare benefits is part of mandatory spending, because the government must by law pay out benefits to all eligible recipients.
There are five key steps in the federal budget process:
The president sends a budget request to Congress each February for the coming fiscal year, which begins on Oct. 1. 6 For example, President Obama submitted his budget request for fiscal year 2013 in February of 2012. Fiscal year 2013 commences on Oct. 1, 2012, and ends on Sept. 30, 2013.
The president’s budget request is just a proposal. Congress then reviews the request and passes its own appropriations bills; only after the president signs these bills does the country have a budget for the new fiscal year. 7
Once the president’s budget request has been released, Congress begins the months-long process of reviewing the request. After the president submits the budget request and lawmakers have thoroughly reviewed it, the House Committee on the Budget and the Senate Committee on the Budget each writes a budget resolution.8 A budget resolution is not a binding document, but is more like a blueprint. It provides a framework for Congress for making budget decisions about spending and taxes. It sets overall annual spending limits for federal agencies, but does not set specific spending amounts for particular programs. After the two chambers pass their budget resolutions, a joint conference is formed to iron out differences between the two and a reconciled version is then voted on by each chamber.
The Appropriations Committees in both the House and the Senate are responsible for determining the precise levels of budget authority for all discretionary programs.9 The Appropriations Committees in both the House and Senate are broken down into smaller Appropriations subcommittees, which review the president’s budget request pertaining to the federal agencies under their specific jurisdictions. (Subcommittees cover different areas of the federal government; for example, there is a subcommittee for defense spending, and another one for energy and water.) After each subcommittee reviews the president’s request, it conducts hearings and poses questions to leaders of its associated federal agencies about each agency’s requested budget.10
Based on all of this information, the chair of each subcommittee writes a first draft of the subcommittee’s appropriations bill, abiding by the spending limits set out in the budget resolution. All subcommittee members then consider, amend, and finally vote on the bill. Once it has passed the subcommittee, the bill goes to the full Appropriations Committee. The full committee reviews it, and then sends it to the full House or Senate for consideration.
The full House and Senate then debate and vote on appropriations bills from each of the 12 subcommittees. After both the House and Senate pass their versions of each appropriations bill, a conference committee meets to resolve differences between the House and Senate versions. After the conference committee produces a reconciled version of the bill, the House and Senate vote again, but this time on a bill that is identical in both chambers.# After passing both the House and Senate, each appropriations bill goes to the president.11
The president must sign each appropriations bill after it has passed Congress for the bill to become law. When the president has signed all 12 appropriations bills, the budget process is complete. Rarely, however, is work finished on all 12 bills by Oct. 1, the start of the new fiscal year.
This chart shows how all of these pieces fit together to make the annual federal budget process.
When the budget process is not complete by Oct. 1, Congress passes a continuing resolution so that agencies continue to receive funding until the full budget is in place.12 A continuing resolution provides temporary funding for federal gencies until new appropriations bills become law.
Because of the length of the federal budget process, from time to time the government has to respond to unanticipated situations for which there is no funding, such as natural disasters or wars. In these cases the government has to allocate additional resources and do so in a timely manner. This type of funding is allocated through legislation known as supplemental appropriations.
So that’s how the budgeting process is supposed to go. And while that sounds pretty complicated, in practice, it’s even more so. Other factors that include party politics, differing economic philosophies, and the impact of lobbying and campaign contributions can also have a considerable impact on the federal budget process.