Thursday, February 16, 2012

Five Things Advocates Need to Know About the Budget and Appropriations Process

Happy Budget Day!  If you’re intimidated, confused or even just bored by the federal budget process, read on for a few things we think citizens should know – without getting all bogged down in D.C. jargon (OK, maybe a little jargon).

It’s important now because your voice matters more than anyone else in the political process.  Clearly, the 112th Congress is focused on cutting spending, which means that some program you like (whether it’s foreign aid, domestic education or business tax credits) will be cut.  Or perhaps you believe that everything should be reduced or eliminated – as many people do these days.  Members of Congress focus with intensity on the view of their constituents.  If you want your perspective to win out – you better speak up.  If you are going to speak up, though, be sure you know what you’re talking about.  Nothing screams “I haven’t done my homework” like someone saying, for example, “let’s balance the budget by eliminating all foreign aid programs.”  Foreign aid programs make up ½ of 1% of the budget.  Eliminating them won’t even balance my yearly coffee budget (yeah, I drink a lot of coffee).  Follow these four tips to learn a little more – and use this wisdom to become a lot more effective.

First, know the difference between the Presidential budget process and the Congressional budget process.  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

Second, know the differences between “budget,” “appropriations,” and “authorization” bills.  The first is a budget blueprint, the second type of bill allows a program to exist (authorization) and the third type provides actual funding for that program (appropriations).  The processes work in tandem and are equally important to the overall outcome.  Effective advocates understand the differences and develop their policy asks accordingly.

Third, know the differences between discretionary and non-discretionary spending.  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 that the funds available for domestic discretionary programs are decreasing, while demand is increasing, thus increasing the need for citizen voices.

Finally, know where to learn more.  In addition to the materials available on your own organization’s website, there are many other sources of information.  Consider Look at the Office of Management and Budget (, the Congressional Budget Office at, which has a primer on the budget process, and the National Priorities Project at, which also has a primer on the budget process has an interesting “where do your tax dollars go” calculator.
Armed with this information you’ll be ready to make a real difference.  So go forth!

No comments: