Political Scene: Following The Budget Process

The following Political Scene column appeared in the March, 1996 issue of Geotimes. It is used with the permission of Geotimes.

Geoscientists need to understand the framework of the budget process if they are to be heard at the right time by the right people in Washington. This column and flow chart are intended to make the Congressional half of the budget process less confusing. But as the current budget impasse shows, the timeline is subject to delay without notice!

By law, the President must deliver his budget for the next fiscal year to Congress on the first Monday in February. That budget is the culmination of many months work within the executive branch, coordinated by the Office of Management and Budget. In turn, the President's budget initiates the Congressional budget process which is to be completed by the beginning of the fiscal year in October.

Four months into the current fiscal year, however, several appropriations bills had yet to be passed by Congress, and several others had passed but were then vetoed. As a new budget season begins, President Clinton is faced with presenting a budget for the coming year without knowing what the budget is for this year. Such is the predicament when a new season starts before the last one ends.

Geoscience-related agencies, including the U.S. Geological Survey (USGS), the National Science Foundation, the Environmental Protection Agency, and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, are still (as of late January) without full-year appropriations. Instead, they are funded, in many cases at reduced levels, by the most recent of several continuing resolutions, which expires in mid-March. There is talk that budget issues for fiscal year (FY) 1996 will not be resolved until after the November elections -- more than a month into FY 1997!

What happens to the President's budget after he presents it to Congress? President Clinton's FY 1996 budget, delivered to Congress in February 1995, was voted down 99-0 by the Senate and by a similarly overwhelming margin in the House. These largely symbolic votes merely set the stage for Congress to consider its own fiscal plan, known as the budget resolution.

Both the House and Senate Budget Committees begin the Congressional process by formulating their own budget resolutions, which are then debated and voted on by each body. Because the final budget resolution must be passed in identical form by both chambers, the first of many House/Senate conferences are held to work out differences. The budget resolution does not go to the President but instead serves as Congress's own blueprint for the process that follows. It sets spending limits for each of the 13 subcommittees in both the House and Senate Appropriations Committees that allocate discretionary spending. In years when major structural changes are required, the resolution also sets down savings targets to be reached by each of the other House and Senate committees (known collectively as authorizing committees) for mandatory spending within their jurisdiction in a process known as budget reconciliation. Although the budget process takes place on parallel tracks in both houses of Congress, tradition d ictates that the House initiates each of the appropriations bills and reconciliation legislation.

Before discussing this dual-track system, distinctions must be drawn between appropriations and authorization and between discretionary and mandatory spending. In theory, all spending must first be authorized before it is appropriated (an aspect of the appropriations process not shown on the flow chart). Authorizing committees, such as the House Science Committee and Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee, produce legislation that sets limits on how much money the House and Senate Appropriations Committees can spend on specific programs. Whereas appropriations legislation is only for one year, authorizing legislation can cover multiple years. It is up to the appropriators, however, whether or not to actually spend the money and how much.

In the House, members who serve on the Appropriations Committee cannot serve on any other committee. Because the Appropriations Committee wields a great deal of power, members not on it tend to feel shut out. The authorizing process gives these members some control on spending. Senators, on the other hand, can and often do sit on both the Appropriations subcommittee and authorizing committee with jursidiction over a particular area. In many cases, the process of authorizing and then appropriating amounts to the right hand authorizing the left hand to appropriate. As a result, authorizing bills that come out of the House often languish in the Senate, which instead relies on standing authority for the agencies themselves (for example, the 1879 Organic Act for the USGS.

The flow chart shows the dual tracks taken for discretionary and mandatory spending. The discussion so far has centered on discretionary spending -- the outlays appropriated each year at the discretion of Congress. Discretionary spending includes federal science and technology funding, including the budgets for the geoscience-related agencies listed above. Mandatory spending includes all those obligations that the federal government must meet by standing statute, including entitlements such as Social Security payments, Medicare, Medicaid, and welfare, as well as interest on the national debt. It is not at Congress's discretion as part of the appropriations process whether or not to spend money on these programs.

Budget reconciliation is where the authorizing committees develop and Congress passes new legislation in order to change mandatory expenditures. This process played a major role this past year because of the large savings in entitlements needed to reach the balanced budget target. It is also where tax cuts are considered and federal assets sold (for example, the Strategic Petroleum Reserve and leasing rights for the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge). Reconciliation is discussed in more detail in the January "Political Scene" column.

Although much of the budget debate takes place over non-defense discretionary spending, which includes the bills produced by 11 of the 13 appropriations subcommittees, all of these outlays account for only 15 percent of total federal spending (percentages are for FY 1994). That figure is comparable to interest payments on the national debt (14 percent) and is less than defense discretionary spending (19 percent) and mandatory spending on social programs (18 percent). All of these categories are dwarfed by mandatory spending on Medicare, Social Security, and other retirement programs (35 percent).

Far from being a model of efficiency, the budget process demonstrates the extent to which our government's system of checks and balances requires practical compromise solutions to complex problems. Compromises must be reached within subcommittees and full committees, within parties, and between minority and majority, House and Senate, and finally Congress and the White House. After the dust settles, the resulting budget seldom deviates by more than a few percentage points from the President's budget proposal back in February, even when opposite parties control the two branches of government. For all the rhetoric, both sides must meet in the middle.

David Applegate
Director of Government Affairs
American Geological Institute


Please send any comments or requests for information to AGI Government Affairs Programgovt@agiweb.org

Last updated April 1, 1996; Flow Chart Image Added June 27, 1999


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