Patricia A. O'Malley
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Established 1993

Patricia A. O'Malley

Social Policy & Programs Consulting

Training and Services for agencies working toward social and economic justice

The Federal Budget Process Never Ends
The Constitution Does Not Require Congress to Adopt a Budget.

March 23, 2017


The federal budget has been in the news every week of my life. The president, Congress, committees, cabinet officials, and lobbyists wheel and deal, debate and deliberate. The process never ends.

Despite what many believe, the U.S. Constitution does not require Congress to adopt a budget.  The word “budget” does not appear in the Constitution at all.  It says all revenue bills - not all spending bills – must originate in the House of Representatives.  A budget bill can begin in either the House or the Senate.

On March 16, President Donald Trump sent his first budget resolution to Congress. Titled “America First - A Budget Blueprint to Make America Great Again”, it contains very few details.  According to the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, “The Trump budget includes only estimates for fiscal 2018 and only for its proposed changes to discretionary programs (those funded through the annual appropriations process) — even though discretionary programs make up less than one-third of the federal budget.  The Trump budget omits any figures on entitlement or mandatory spending (e.g., Social Security, Medicare, Medicaid, federal retirement, or SNAP), interest payments, revenues, or deficits. 

It’s 62 pages long and you can read it at the White House Office of Management and Budget site.

What is a Budget?
A budget resolution is a broad statement of goals and priorities for five fiscal years. Congress and the president will hash out the details over the coming months.

The United States budget is more than just a list of where we’re spending our money. The president’s budget reveals his goals and priorities for the country. The final version adopted by Congress reflects how much Congress agrees with him. Trump’s budget reflects the plans expressed during his campaign and his recent address to Congress.

The Budget Process
Each federal fiscal year, and each new budget, begins on October 1 of the prior calendar year. Fiscal year 2017 began on October 1, 2016 and ends on September 30, 2017. The Congressional Budget Act of 1974 outlines a specific timetable for submitting, considering, debating, approving, monitoring, and auditing the budget.

In the fall of the year, each federal department develops its budget request and sends it to the White House Office of Management and Budget. OMB compiles the separate requests into the president’s budget resolution. The president sends the resolution to Congress in February. That’s where we are now.

All House and Senate committees evaluate the resolution’s budget requests. Next, the topic committees (agriculture, defense, education, etc.) make their recommendations to the respective Budget Committees. By April 1, the Budget Committees send their resolutions to the House and Senate floors for debate and voting.

Congress completes its action on the budget resolution by April 15, and then the Appropriations Committees get their turn to examine the proposals by June 30. By July 15, the president submits the mid-session review of his budget to Congress. And then every committee gets a second look at the plans.

Authorizing legislation sets the spending limit for a particular category. An appropriations bill gives a specific amount of money to a specific government agency for a specific purpose, like salaries, office expenses, or programs. A reconciliation bill allows Congress to change revenue and spending figures to achieve a specified budgetary result.

Congress must pass a final budget before the fiscal year begins on October 1. If they don’t, they can pass a “continuing resolution” in which they agree to operate the government under the old budget until they settle their differences. Or they can shut down the entire federal government, as they did in 1995 under President Clinton and under President Obama in 2013.

Post-Budget Activities
Even after the budget is final, there are implementation, reporting, review, and auditing requirements. It takes two and a half calendar years to complete the budget process for just one fiscal year. Federal agency staff members deal with three fiscal years at once – implementing the current year’s budget, requesting funds from Congress for the next year, and planning for the year after that.

In the end, it looks nothing like it did in the beginning. And after all of that work, no one is ever really happy with the result.

The Center on Budget and Priorities website is the best resource for budget information. CBPP is a private, nonprofit organization dedicated to detailed analysis of the federal budget and its impact on real people’s real lives.

I’ve worked with the CBPP staff, and they really love reading all of those numbers. And they’re good at it.

For more information:
White House Office of Management and Budget
Congressional Budget Office
US House Budget Committee
US Senate Budget Committee
Center on Budget and Policy Priorities
Learn about deficit spending

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