What are Appropriations?

Congress uses an authorization-appropriation process that provides for two separate types of legislation — authorization bills and appropriation bills — that are generally considered in sequence.  First, authorization bills establish, continue, or modify policies, agencies, and programs.  Second, appropriations bills provide spending for the agencies and programs previously authorized.

Appropriations are under the jurisdiction of the House and Senate Appropriations Committees and provide for about 40 percent of total federal spending each year; the balance of federal spending is in mandatory or direct spending programs, such as Social Security, Medicare, food stamps, and farm commodity programs, under the control of authorizing committees.

Congress annually considers a dozen appropriations measures, one of which is for agriculture, rural development, and the food and drug administration. The interplay between the multi-year farm bill, an authorizing measure, and the annual agriculture appropriations bill sometimes results in the line between them being blurred, as when the appropriations bill uses legislative “riders” that change the terms of an authorized policy or program or when the appropriations bill limits or eliminates mandatory farm bill programs by placing limitations on agency salaries and expenses that can be spent to implement a program.

The appropriations or “funding phase” of the policy cycle happens each year.  There are three kinds of appropriations measures:

  1. Regular appropriations bills provide most of the funding for a fiscal year, and should be enacted by the beginning of the fiscal year on October 1st, though they are often late.
  2. Continuing resolutions are passed if regular bills are not enacted by the October 1st deadline.  Continuing resolutions continue funding at the previous fiscal year’s levels until regular bills are enacted.
  3. Supplemental bills are considered later and provide additional appropriations, often for disasters, emergencies, and other unforeseen spending.

Annual Appropriations Cycle

  1. The budget process starts in February when the President submits recommendations to Congress about the next fiscal year – which programs should be funded at what levels.
  2. Congress passes its own budget – by April 15th (though sometimes it is late) – which does not have to abide by the President’s.
  3. The leadership of the Appropriations Committees then take the resources provided by the budget resolution and divvy it up between the appropriations subcommittees, with each subcommittee getting a specific slice of the total pie.
  4. In the spring, the Appropriations Committees start to hold hearings, and during the summer months, they meet to draft appropriations bills that cannot exceed the allocation provided in step 3.
  5. The House and Senate Subcommittee chairs ask all members of Congress, including their subcommittee members, to submit a confidential letter detailing their agriculture appropriations priorities for the fiscal year starting the following October 1st.  NSAC works to ensure that our members’ priorities are among those listed in these letters.
  6. The appropriations bill ultimately gets sent to the floors of the House and the Senate for a vote, sometimes in the summer and otherwise generally in the fall.
  7. After both houses have acted, they meet to sort out the differences between the bills in a House-Senate Conference Committee, whose timing can vary from mid-summer to September though sometimes not until early the next year.  Because the House, Senate, and the President rarely agree about appropriations, the October 1st deadline is sometimes missed and continuing resolutions must be enacted pending the final enactment of the regular bills.