Tuesday, April 12, 2011

Budgets, Budgets Everywhere!

You've probably heard that the government was going to shut down. Then not. Then it would. Then it wouldn't. Well, Congress has finally APPEARED to reach a deal for the current Fiscal Year (FY2011)(emphasis on "appeared") and you can read the text at www.congress.gov. To access it, under the search button select "bill number" and then type in H.R. 1473. There's also a PDF version at http://tinyurl.com/3c33wuv, but it's a PDF which, frankly, I find a little hard to read.

In addition, the text of the proposed budget resolution for FY2012 (the fiscal year starting on October 1st), is available at http://tinyurl.com/3dwmhah. Yeah, I know: which one means what? Following is a brief summary of three things it's good to know about the budget process:

The difference between the Presidential budget process and the Congressional budget process

First of all, the Administration’s proposal, which comes out every February, is simply that – a proposal. What Congress, as the branch that has the true “power of the purse strings,” decides is a totally different matter. When the person occupying the White House and the leadership of the House and Senate are of the same political persuasion the budget numbers may be somewhat similar. However, when the President and the Congress don’t see eye-to-eye, the President’s proposal becomes less a signal of where there are agreements and more a sign of what items will be most in contention

The differences between “budget,” “appropriations,” and “authorization”

Frankly, advocates and professionals alike are often confused by the differences between a) a budget blueprint, b) language allowing a program to exist (authorization) and c) the actually funding for that program (appropriations). Just think of it as it applies to your personal life: your budget gives you a sense of what you might spend on various items throughout the year; your bills (utilites, car payment, etc.) are your "authorizations" for programs to exist and the checks you write (or the wire transfers you authorize -- for those who don't remember checks) are your "appropriations."

Discretionary vs. Non-discretionary Spending

As anyone working on Federal funding issues knows, the VAST majority of federal spending is on what are known as “non-discretionary” programs, such as Medicare, Social Security and interest on the national debt. In essence, these programs are not truly non-discretionary: Congress could pass policy language making changes that would reduce or increase spending in these areas. However, major changes to these programs are few and far between. Most yearly funding battles are oriented around the one-third of the budget that is considered “discretionary.”

Advocates need to understand these differences for two reasons. First, to help rationalize (if the word “rational” can be used as it relates to the budget process) the yearly battles over funding for favored programs and second, to emphasis the fact that the funds available for domestic discretionary programs are decreasing, while demand is increasing.

In addition, it's important to recognize that when we propose cutting funding for programs like public broadcasting or the arts, we're not making even a dent in the budget deficit. We're barely making a discernable scratch. To make real progress, we'll need to look at those "non-discretionary" items, which will be extremely difficult politically.

So it will be a fun few months in Washington, DC as they rangle all this out. Hopefully, these few points about the budget process are useful as you "go forth and advocate," even in this confusing (and frustrating) process.