Appropriations 101: What are Appropriations and Why Do They Keep Shutting the Government Down?

Let’s start at the top — Congress is constitutionally guaranteed the “power of the purse.” This means that every year, it’s up to Congress to determine how tax dollars get allocated to all of the government’s federal expenditures, from Medicare to public schools, and from maintaining U.S. embassies abroad to dairy farm subsidies.

When it comes to government spending, certain government programs are obligated by law to be fulfilled, while other programs’ funding levels are debated on an annual basis. These types of funding allocations are referred to as mandatory and discretionary spending. Most mandatory spending is for federal entitlement programs and other payment programs such as Social Security, Medicare, Medicaid, federal pensions, student loans, and others. All in all, mandatory spending consists of about 60% of annual government spending.

Almost everything else is then funded through discretionary spending and requires an annual passage of law by the House and Senate Appropriations Committees in order to go into effect. To narrow this pot of discretionary funds down even further, you can pretty much guarantee that half of that money will go every year to defense spending. This leaves about 20% of all annual government spending for non-defense discretionary (what wonks call “NDD”) spending.

This 20% is what is left to fund all remaining priorities for government spending — research grants, Head Start, public education, housing assistance, law enforcement, diplomatic affairs, NASA… the list goes on. It’s easy to see how what appears to be a large pot of money at the beginning starts to feel scarcer and scarcer, and oftentimes, if not all the time, this leads to political clashes over priorities.

Further complicating this process is the role of the President. Every year, the Administration will release its proposed budget and justification. Constitutionally, only Congress has the power to levy the budget, so the President’s proposal is just that — it’s often considered a bellwether of where the President’s party will align their priorities, but in reality, there is no legal obligation to deliver on the Administration’s request.

The catch, however, is that just as with any other bill, the President must sign the appropriations acts drafted by Congress for it to pass into law. Failure for an appropriations act to pass into law by a fiscal year’s deadline means that there are no operating funds for the federal government and leads to a government shutdown (thus, providing incentive for Congress to attempt to meet the President’s most pressing priorities).

While this process seems fairly straightforward, suffice it to say that Congress has a knack for creating high-drama situations out of this annual budgeting process. For starters, it’s been four decades since Congress has successfully passed a budget by its original deadline; the Hill often employs the use of “stopgap” measures, usually a continuing resolution, with little time to spare before the deadline in order to delay the fiscal year’s due date. We’re already on our second stopgap this year, with the current deadline set for December 20.

Additionally, in theory Congress is supposed to pass a series of standalone spending bills, broken down by the various sectors covered by the Appropriations subcommittees. For example, there is a “Labor-Health and Human Services-Education Subcommittee” of the Appropriations Committee, tasked with writing the budget for all government spending covered within those areas. However, Congress frequently results to passing massive “omnibus” spending packages that combine the appropriations across various subcommittees due to bumping up against government shutdown deadlines.

The major flashpoint in political budget priorities this year will be, as it has been for the past two years, the President’s proposed Border Wall, for which he is asking for $5 billion in spending, an amount which Democrats have refused. Depending on whether Congress can pass any spending bills before the deadline, if the President refuses to sign a bill without a Border Wall allocation, it will result in another partial or total government shutdown. As of December 13, it was reported that appropriators had reached a budget settlement “in principle,” with $1.375 billion being allocated for the Border Wall.

Why it Matters

While most people, understandably, choose to ignore the federal budget process throughout most of the year, the appropriations process is ultimately the life blood of the federal government. By engaging the Appropriations Committees and advocating for your priorities, individuals can have an outsized impact on levels of government support for the services and programs they care about, from afterschool programs to National Science Foundation research.

Unfortunately, this powerful process can also have a hugely negative impact on individuals’ lives. When government shutdowns occur, it has detrimental effects on the economy, and hundreds of thousands of federal workers and contractors go unpaid.

What’s Next

At the time of writing it’s currently crunch time for the Congressional Appropriations Committees — and your last chance to make a plea for your spending priorities, whatever they may be. If you’ve hit the advocacy lotto, your Congressional representative may sit on one of the House or Senate Appropriations Committees, giving you even more leverage to appeal for small increases to the government programs you care most about.

Regardless of whether your representation sits on Appropriations or not, this is a good time to contact your policymakers and let them know what’s important to you in the 2020 budget.

Update: On December 20, President Trump signed two spending packages into law, preventing a government shutdown, and guaranteeing $1.4 trillion funding for government programs for the 2020 fiscal year. This includes $1.3 billion increase in Department of Education funding, a $266 million increase in discretionary funding for the Department of Labor, and a $1.1 billion increase to childcare programs administered through the Department of Health & Human Services. These increases in funding help to provide the educational, workforce, and wraparound services that allow women to enter and thrive in technical careers.

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