Federal Budget FAQs
- I heard that the President wants to cut/raise spending at NSF/NIH/etc. Is that going to happen?
- How does Congress fund the government?
- Why can’t we just increase spending for science research?
- How is discretionary spending different from mandatory spending?
- What is the difference between “authorizing” and “appropriating?”
- What is a continuing resolution (CR)?
- What is an omnibus? Minibus? _____bus?
- What are House and Senate committee reports? How can they impact scientific research?
- When does the fiscal year start/end?
- I want to get more involved in public policy. What can I do?
Maybe, but only if Congress agrees. While both the President and Congress play a role in setting the budget for the fiscal year, Congress has the true power of the purse. Generally, the process goes like this: Each year, the President collects information about program needs from the executive branch agencies and—after making some alterations based on political preferences— submits a budget request to Congress. Congress can then use this budget as a starting point, or choose to ignore some or all of it during its appropriations process.
Usually, Congress starts by setting overall targets for federal spending for the year. Then, the two chambers start the process of divvying up the money:
A. 12 House and 12 Senate Appropriations subcommittees debate funding levels for the agencies under their jurisdiction.
B. After passing the spending bills out of subcommittee, the full House/Senate Appropriations committee votes.
C. If the full Appropriations Committee approves the bill, then the whole House/Senate votes on it.
D. Once a spending bill is completed in both chambers, a committee of Representative and Senators works to iron out any differences. Both chambers then vote again on the consensus bill.
E. Each finalized spending bill is then sent to the President for a signature (or veto).
Several factors limit how much money gets spent on scientific programs:
A. The overall budget cap: By law, Congress can’t exceed caps on discretionary spending.
B. The appropriation process: Since agencies are grouped together into appropriations bills with shared target levels of funding, an increase for one agency/ program requires a decrease for a different agency/program.
C. Politics: Elected officials try to shape the overall budget to fit their political preferences, which in turn are influenced by their constituents (including the chemists in their state/district!), the media, their party, and other factors.
Discretionary spending is the money that Congress gets to portion out in the appropriations process. It is broken down into defense discretionary (the money for military/security) and non-defense discretionary, which includes spending for almost all of the federal scientific programs.
Conversely, mandatory spending is money the government has to pay out by law without needed Congressional input. This includes things like Medicare and Social Security.
Authorizing refers to Congress’ ability to grant federal agencies permission to exist or perform certain functions. For example, the National Science Foundation Act of 1950 created the NSF and gave the agency its mission to support basic research. Congress maintains oversight of the agencies through Congressional committees (e.g. the House Science, Space, and Technology Committee) and periodically re-authorizes them.
Appropriating refers to Congress’ ability to give agencies and programs money to perform their functions.
Congress often fails to finish the budget on time. Nevertheless, funding needs to be approved, or else government has to shut down. One option is to pass a continuing resolution (CR), which means that Congress agrees to fund everything at the previous fiscal year’s level. CRs are often scaled to give Congress enough time to finish appropriations for the rest of the fiscal year. While CRs keep the lights on, they do pose problems, especially for scientific agencies. For one, new programs can’t be started under CRs. Agencies like NSF also run into problems distributing grant money because they will not know how much they have to spend.
To speed up the appropriations process, Congress often packages appropriations bills together and votes on them all at once. Wide-ranging bills that do this are called omnibuses. Recently, Congress has tried bundling bills into smaller chunks (e.g. packaging 4 of the 12 bills together); that’s a minibus. Other “-buses” are variations on this theme.
When a House or Senate committee advances a bill to the full chamber, it will also release an accompanying committee report that addresses legislative and other policy issues. These reports often elaborate on how funds are to be spent or tell the agencies to do something specific. For example, a recent committee report for a Senate appropriations bill instructed NSF “to support sustainable chemistry, including developing a long-term vision for sustainable chemistry research and development.”
The U.S. government’s fiscal year starts on October 1 and ends on September 30. If an agency is given money for “FYXX,” it needs to be spent by the September deadline (unless otherwise allowed by law).
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