July 15, 2014

Dysfunction Junction (Part 1)

Posted by Nick Saab

Written By Nick Saab, AGU Public Affairs

When Fiscal Year 2014 comes to a close on 30 September, the clocks should roll over to 1 October without another catastrophic government shutdown. But, here we are, in the middle of a hot and steamy July, and while things aren’t as bad as they were last year, they most certainly are not where they should be.

The original intent of this post was to cover an “appropriations process 101″ and an in-depth description of the current state of affairs, but it would just be way too long. So, to better cover the issue (and to give you yet another reason to visit the blog) the second half of this blog with the “where we are now” bit will be published later this week. Additionally, it will be very helpful to read the post March Madness posted back in March when the president released his annual budget request.

Credit: Archive of the Capitol

Credit: Archive of the Capitol

Historically, once the president submits his budget request and the House and Senate Budget Committees finish work setting a top-line spending number for the upcoming fiscal year, House and Senate Appropriations Committees get to work actually allocating the money. Both Appropriations Committees have identical subcommittees, each with jurisdiction over specific areas. For example, the House and Senate Appropriations Subcommittees on Commerce, Justice, and Science have discretion over NOAA, NASA, NSF, NIST, and the White House’s Office of Science and Technology Policy. The Subcommittees on Energy and Water have authority over the Department of Energy and water development projects.

The laws that come out of Congress take two different forms: there’s “authorizing” legislation and “appropriating” legislation. Authorizing legislation is usually what most of us think when we remember the Schoolhouse Rock “I’m Just a Bill” sketch, and is constrained mostly to policy items. Very simply, the authorization process allows the government to act a certain way, while the appropriations process sets aside the actual dollars to fulfill the authorized action. One very important point: what an authorizing bill allows to be spent on a program or agency does not have to match what is appropriated; it only sets a ceiling as to how much money can be spent on something. Furthermore, these appropriations bills usually are not supposed to contain policy, or authorizing, language. Is your head spinning yet?

This may seem like an unnecessary (and exhausting) amount of detailed information, but it is absolutely essential to understanding what is going on currently. The appropriations process is perhaps the absolute, most important power that Congress has. No president can legally issue an executive order funding something that Congress has either not appropriated or barred money from being spent on. This is what Founding Father John Adams had to say on the matter:

“This power over the purse may, in fact, be regarded as the most complete and effectual weapon with which any constitution can arm the immediate representatives of the people, for obtaining a redress of every grievance, and for carrying into effect every just and salutary measure.”

And that is exactly what some members in Congress are doing; using the appropriations process as a tool to address their grievances, whether perceived or real.

Around this time of year, House and Senate Appropriators should be just about done appropriating how much money goes to each part of the Federal government for the following fiscal year. What they have (and haven’t) accomplished so far a whole other blog post. For the detailed breakdown on what the House and Senate are actually discussing numbers-wise, where the breakdowns are occurring, as well as some of the policy implications, check back later week.