Introduction to the Federal Budget Process
Prepared for Members and Committees of Congress
Budgeting for the federal government is an enormously complex process. It entails dozens of
subprocesses, countless rules and procedures, the efforts of tens of thousands of staff persons in
the executive and legislative branches, millions of work hours each year, and the active
participation of the President and congressional leaders, as well as other Members of Congress
and executive officials.
The enforcement of budgetary decisions involves a complex web of procedures that encompasses
both congressional and executive actions. In recent years, these procedures have been rooted
principally in two statutes—the Congressional Budget Act of 1974 and the Budget Enforcement
Act (BEA). The 1974 act established a congressional budget process in which budget policies are
enforced by Congress during the consideration of individual measures. The BEA is the most
recent embodiment of additional enforcement procedures, first established in 1985 and renewed
with substantial modification in 1990 and 1997, that have been used by the executive to enforce
budget policies after the end of a congressional session. The BEA enforcement procedures were th
waived in recent years and effectively expired toward the end of the 107 Congress. Efforts to thth
renew them in the 108 through 110 Congresses were not successful.
The President’s budget is required by law to be submitted to Congress early in the legislative
session. While the budget is only a request to Congress, the power to formulate and submit the
budget is a vital tool in the President’s direction of the executive branch and of national policy.
The President’s proposals often influence congressional revenue and spending decisions, though
the extent of the influence varies from year to year and depends more on political and fiscal
conditions than on the legal status of the budget.
The Congressional Budget Act of 1974 establishes the congressional budget process as the means
by which Congress coordinates the various budget-related actions (such as the consideration of
appropriations and revenue measures) taken by it during the course of the year. The process is
centered around an annual concurrent resolution on the budget that sets aggregate budget policies
and functional spending priorities for at least the next five fiscal years. Because a concurrent
resolution is not a law—it cannot be signed or vetoed by the President—the budget resolution
does not have statutory effect; no money can be raised or spent pursuant to it. Revenue and
spending amounts set in the budget resolution establish the basis for the enforcement of
congressional budget policies through points of order.
Congress implements budget resolution policies through action on individual revenue and debt-
limit measures, annual appropriations acts, and direct spending legislation. In some years,
Congress considers reconciliation legislation pursuant to reconciliation instructions in the budget
resolution. Reconciliation legislation is used mainly to bring existing revenue and direct spending
laws into conformity with budget resolution policies Initially, reconciliation was a major tool for
deficit reduction; in recent years, reconciliation has been used mainly to reduce revenues.
The Evolution of Federal Budgeting...............................................................................................1
Basic Concepts of Federal Budgeting.............................................................................................2
Budget Authority and Outlays...................................................................................................2
Scope of the Budget..................................................................................................................3
Deficit Reduction and the Rules of Congressional Budgeting........................................................4
Budgeting for Discretionary and Direct Spending..........................................................................6
Budgeting for Direct and Guaranteed Loans...................................................................................8
The Budget Cycle............................................................................................................................8
The Presidential Budget Process.....................................................................................................9
Formulation and Content of the President’s Budget.................................................................9
Executive Interaction With Congress......................................................................................10
The Congressional Budget Process................................................................................................11
Formulation and Content of the Budget Resolution.................................................................11
Budget Resolution Enforcement.............................................................................................13
Budget Resolution Aggregates..........................................................................................13
Allocations of Spending to Committees...........................................................................14
Scoring and Cost Estimates..............................................................................................14
Points of Order..................................................................................................................15
The Sequestration Process.............................................................................................................16
The Annual Appropriations Process........................................................................................18
Development and Consideration of Reconciliation Measures................................................23
Impoundment and Line-Item Veto.................................................................................................25
Impoundment .................................................................................................................... ...... 25
Rescis si ons .................................................................................................................... .... 26
Deferr al s...................................................................................................................... ...... 26
Table 1. Congressional Budget Process Timetable.........................................................................11
Author Contact Information..........................................................................................................27
Acknowledgments ......................................................................................................................... 27
The “power of the purse” is a legislative power. The Constitution lists the power to lay and collect
taxes and the power to borrow as powers of Congress; further, it provides that funds may be
drawn from the Treasury only pursuant to appropriations made by law. The Constitution does not
state how these legislative powers are to be exercised, nor does it expressly provide for the
President to have a role in the management of the nation’s finances.
During the nation’s early years, the House and Senate devised procedures for the enactment of th
spending and revenue legislation. As these procedures evolved during the 19 century and the th
first decades of the 20 century, they led to highly fragmented legislative actions. In the course of
each session, Congress passed many separate appropriations bills and other measures affecting
the financial condition of the federal government. Neither the Constitution nor the procedures
adopted by the House and Senate provided for a budget system—that is, for a coordinated set of
actions covering all federal spending and revenues. As long as the federal government was small
and its spending and revenues were stable, such a budget system was not considered necessary.
Early in the 20th century, the incessant rise in federal spending and the recurrence of deficits
(spending exceeded revenues in half of the 20 years preceding FY1920) led Congress to seek a
more coordinated means of making financial decisions. The key legislation was the Budget and
Accounting Act of 1921, which established the executive budget process.
The 1921 act did not directly alter the procedures by which Congress makes revenue and
spending decisions. The main impact was in the executive branch. The President was required to
submit his budget recommendations to Congress each year, and the Bureau of the Budget—
renamed the Office of Management and Budget (OMB) in 1970—was created to assist him in
carrying out his budgetary responsibilities. Congress, it was expected, would be able to
coordinate its revenue and spending decisions if it received comprehensive budget
recommendations from the President. In line with this expectation, the House and Senate changed
their rules to consolidate the jurisdiction of the Appropriations Committees over spending. The
1921 act also established the General Accounting Office (GAO), headed by the Comptroller
General, and made it the principal auditing arm of the federal government. (The GAO recently
was renamed the Government Accountability Office.) The 1921 act, as amended, remains the
statutory basis for the presidential budget system.
After World War II, the belief that the presidential budget sufficed to maintain fiscal control gave
way to the view that Congress needed its own budget process. Some Members of Congress feared
that dependence on the executive budget had bolstered the President’s fiscal powers at the
expense of Congress’s; others felt that as long as its financial decisions were fragmented,
Congress could not effectively control expenditures.
The Congressional Budget and Impoundment Control Act of 1974 established a congressional
budget process centered around a concurrent resolution on the budget, scheduled for adoption
prior to legislative consideration of revenue or spending bills. The congressional budget process
initiated in the 1970s did not replace the preexisting revenue and spending processes. Instead, it
provided an overall legislative framework within which the many separate measures affecting the
budget would be considered. The central purpose of the budget process established by the 1974
act is to coordinate the various revenue and spending decisions which are made in separate
revenue, appropriations, and other budgetary measures. To assist Congress in making budget
decisions, the 1974 act established the Congressional Budget Office (CBO) and directed it to
provide data on and analyses of the federal budget.
During the years that the congressional budget process has been in operation, its procedures have
been adapted by Congress to changing circumstances. Following a decade of experience with the
1974 Congressional Budget Act, Congress made further changes in the budget process by
enacting the Balanced Budget and Emergency Deficit Control Act of 1985 (also known as the
Gramm-Rudman-Hollings Act), the Budget Enforcement Act of 1990, the Line Item Veto Act in
The 1985 act prescribed declining deficit targets intended to achieve balance in FY1991; the
targets were enforced by sequestration, a process involving automatic, across-the-board cuts in
nonexempt spending programs if the targets were expected to be exceeded. The 1990 act replaced
the deficit targets with caps on discretionary spending and a pay-as-you-go requirement for
revenue and direct spending legislation; sequestration was retained as the means of enforcing the
two new mechanisms. The 1996 act authorized the President to cancel discretionary spending in
appropriation acts, as well as new direct spending and limited tax benefits in other legislation,
subject to expedited legislative procedures by which Congress could overturn the cancellations.
(The Supreme Court struck down the Line Item Veto Act in June 1998 as unconstitutional.)
Finally, the 1997 act extended the BEA procedures for several more years.
The federal budget is a compilation of numbers about the revenues, spending, and borrowing and
debt of the government. Revenues come largely from taxes, but stem from other sources as well
(such as duties, fines, licenses, and gifts). Spending involves such concepts as budget authority,
obligations, outlays, and offsetting collections. The numbers are computed according to rules and
conventions that have accumulated over the years; they do not always conform to the way
revenues and spending are accounted for in other processes.
When Congress appropriates money, it provides budget authority, that is, authority to enter into
obligations. Budget authority also may be provided in legislation that does not go through the
appropriations process (direct spending legislation). The key congressional spending decisions
relate to the obligations that agencies are authorized to incur during a fiscal year, not to the
outlays made during the year. (Obligations occur when agencies enter into contracts, submit
purchase orders, employ personnel, and so forth; outlays occur when obligations are liquidated,
primarily through the issuance of checks, electronic fund transfers, or the disbursement of cash.)
The provision of budget authority is the key point at which Congress exercises control over
federal spending, although the outlay level often receives greater public attention because of its
bearing on the deficit. Congress does not directly control outlays; each year’s outlays derive in
part from new budget authority and in part from “carryover” budget authority provided in prior
years. For example, President Bush’s initial budget submission for FY2009 estimated that outlays
would total $3,107 billion for that year. Approximately $2,411 billion of this amount was
estimated to come from new budget authority for the fiscal year, while the remainder ($696
billion) was estimated to come from budget authority enacted in prior years.
The relation of budget authority to outlays varies from program to program and depends on
spendout rates, the rates at which funds provided by Congress are obligated and payments
disbursed. In a program with a high spendout rate, most new budget authority is expended during
the fiscal year; if the spendout rate is low, however, most of the outlays occur in later years.
Regardless of the spendout rate, the outlays in the budget are merely estimates of the amounts
that will be disbursed during the year. If payments turn out to be higher than the budget estimate,
outlays will be above the budgeted level. The President and Congress control outlays indirectly
by deciding on the amount of budget authority to be provided or by limiting the amount of
obligations to be incurred.
Certain receipts of the federal government are accounted for as “offsets” against outlays rather
than as revenues. Various fees collected by government agencies are deducted from outlays;
similarly, income from the sale of certain assets are treated as offsetting receipts. Most such
receipts are offsets against the outlays of the agencies that collect the money, but in the case of
offshore oil leases and certain other activities, the revenues are deducted from the total outlays of
The budget consists of two main groups of funds: federal funds and trust funds. Federal funds—
which comprise mainly the general fund—largely derive from the general exercise of the taxing
power and general borrowing and for the most part are not earmarked by law to any specific
program or agency. One component of federal funds, called special funds, are earmarked as to
source and purpose. The use of federal funds is determined largely by appropriations acts.
Trust funds are established, under the terms of statutes that designate them as trust funds, to
account for funds earmarked by specific sources and purposes. The Social Security funds are the
largest of the trust funds; revenues are collected under a Social Security payroll tax and are used
to pay for Social Security benefits and related purposes. The unified budget includes both the
federal funds and the trust funds. The balances in the trust funds are borrowed by the federal
government; they are counted, therefore, in the federal debt. Because these balances offset a
budget deficit but are included in the federal debt, the annual increase in the debt invariably
exceeds the amount of the budget deficit. For the same reason, it is possible for the federal debt to
rise when the federal government has a budget surplus.
Capital and operating expenses are not segregated in the budget. Hence, monies paid for the
operations of government agencies as well as for the acquisition of long-life assets (such as
buildings, roads, and weapons systems) are reported as budget outlays. Proposals have been made
from time to time to divide the budget into capital and operating accounts. While these proposals
have not been adopted, the budget provides information showing the investment and operating
outlays of the government.
The budget totals do not include all the financial transactions of the federal government. The
main exclusions fall into two categories—off-budget entities and government-sponsored
enterprises. In addition, the budget includes direct and guaranteed loans on the basis of the
accounting rules established by the Federal Credit Reform Act of 1990, which are discussed
Off-budget entities are excluded by law from the budget totals. The receipts and disbursements of
the Social Security trust funds (the Old-Age and Survivors Insurance Fund and the Disability
Insurance Fund), as well as spending for the Postal Service Fund, are excluded from the budget
totals. These transactions are shown separately in the budget. Thus, the budget now reports two
deficit or surplus amounts—one excluding the Social Security trust funds and the Postal Service
Fund, and the other (on a unified basis) including these entities. The latter is the main focus of
discussion in both the President’s budget and the congressional budget process.
The transactions of government-owned corporations (excluding the Postal Service), as well as
revolving funds, are included in the budget on a net basis. That is, the amount shown in the
budget is the difference between receipts and outlays, not the total activity of the enterprise or
revolving fund. If, for example, a revolving fund has annual income of $150 million and
disbursements of $200 million, the budget would report $50 million as net outlays.
Government-sponsored enterprises (GSEs) historically have been excluded from the budget
because they were deemed to be private rather than public entities. The federal government did
not own any equity in these enterprises, most of which received their financing from private
sources. Although they were established by the federal government, their budgets were not
reviewed by the President or Congress in the same manner as other programs. Most of these
enterprises engaged in credit activities. They borrowed funds in capital markets and lent money to
homeowners, farmers, and others. In total, these enterprises had assets and liabilities measured in
trillions of dollars. Financial statements of the government-sponsored enterprises were published
in the President’s budget.
Although some GSEs continue to operate on this basis, the economic downturn and credit
instability that occurred in 2008 fundamentally changed the status of two GSEs that play a
significant role in the home mortgage market, Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac. In September of
thereby subjecting them to control by the Federal Government until the conservatorship
eventually is brought to an end.
Between the early 1980s and the late 1990s, annual consideration of the budget was dominated by
concern about the budget deficit. In the mid-1980s, the deficit exceeded $150 billion and
amounted to about 6% of GDP at one point. In the early 1990s, the deficit approached the $300
billion level. Following four years of surpluses (FY1998-FY2001), the budget returned to deficit
for FY2002. Current budget projections show sizeable deficits persisting over the coming years.
The size of the deficit depends on how it is measured. The unified budget deficit combines all on-
budget federal funds and trust funds with the off-budget entities (the Social Security trust funds
and the Postal Service Fund). The unified budget deficit generally is regarded as the most
comprehensive measure of the impact of the budget on the economy. A narrower measure of the
deficit is derived by excluding the Social Security trust funds from the totals. This exclusion is
mandated by law, although Social Security is counted in the budget in reports on the deficit.
Excluding Social Security from computations of the deficit or surplus results in higher deficit or
lower surplus figures.
Regardless of the measure used, it is evident that the deficit was unusually high for an extended
period of time. The chronic deficits of the 1980s prompted Congress to enact the Balanced
Budget and Emergency Deficit Control Act of 1985. The 1985 act established deficit targets for
each year through FY1991, when the budget was to be balanced, and a sequestration process
under which budgetary resources would be canceled automatically (through largely across-the-
board spending cuts) if the estimated deficit exceeded the amount allowed under the act.
Even with the targets, the actual deficit for the covered years was above the targeted level. Failure
to achieve the deficit targets, and other problems, led Congress to revise the process in the Budget
Enforcement Act (BEA) of 1990. Sequestration procedures were retained, but the fixed deficit
targets were replaced by adjustable ones (which expired at the end of FY1995), adjustable limits
were imposed on discretionary spending, and a pay-as-you-go (PAYGO) process was established
for revenues and direct spending. The discretionary spending limits and PAYGO process were
extended (through FY1998) by the Omnibus Budget Reconciliation of 1993 and again (through
FY2002) by the BEA of 1997.
The BEA enforcement procedures were waived in recent years and they effectively expired ththth
toward the end of the 107 Congress. Efforts to renew them in the 108 through 110 Congresses
were unsuccessful. Although it is not clear at this point whether they will be revived in their th
current form during the 111 Congress, the recurrence of persistent deficits suggests that
additional enforcement procedures modeled on discretionary spending limits and a PAYGO
requirement could be adopted.
Under the discretionary spending limits, different categories of discretionary spending were used
for different periods. Under the 1997 changes, discretionary spending limits applied separately to
defense and nondefense spending for FY1998-FY1999 and to violent crime reduction spending
for FY1998-FY2000; for the remaining fiscal years, the 1997 changes merged all discretionary
spending into a single, general purpose category. In 1998, as part of the Transportation Equity Act st
for the 21 Century, Congress added separate categories for highway and mass transit spending.
Finally, in 2000, Congress added a category for conservation spending; unlike the other
categories, the conservation spending category had six subcategories.
The PAYGO process required that the budgetary impact of revenue and direct spending
legislation be recorded on a multiyear “PAYGO scorecard,” and that in the net any such
legislation not yield a negative balance for the upcoming fiscal year. Legislation reducing
revenues or increasing direct spending for a fiscal year had to be offset (in the same or other
legislation) by revenue increases or reductions in direct spending for that fiscal year so that the
applicable balance on the PAYGO scorecard remained at or above zero.
The Senate supplemented the statutory PAYGO requirement with a special PAYGO rule included
in annual budget resolutions; following the expiration of the statutory PAYGO requirement, the
Senate extended its PAYGO rule (currently through FY2017). The House adopted its own th
PAYGO rule for the first time at the beginning of the 110 Congress. Although the Senate
PAYGO rule has been revised significantly from time to time, it presently is similar in approach
to the House rule. Both rules provide for points of order to bar the consideration of any legislation
that proposes changes in direct spending or revenue that are not deficit neutral over six-year and
Under the BEA procedures, violations of the discretionary spending limits or the PAYGO
requirement were to be enforced by sequestration. However, sequestration was not used for more
than a decade, either because Congress and the President enacted budgetary legislation consistent
with the discretionary spending limits and PAYGO requirement, or, more recently, effectively
waived these enforcement requirements.
The distinction drawn by the BEA and the congressional budget process between discretionary
spending (which is controlled through the annual appropriations process) and direct spending
(which is provided outside of the annual appropriations process) recognized that the federal
government has somewhat different, though overlapping, means of dealing with these two types
of spending. One set of procedures pertained to discretionary spending, another to direct
Most of the direct spending subject to the PAYGO process under the BEA involved entitlement
programs; the rest consisted of other forms of mandatory spending provided through authorizing
legislation and interest payments. In fact, entitlements now account for about half of total federal
spending (all direct spending, including net interest, accounts for about two-thirds of the total).
The impressive feature of this trend is that most of the growth in spending and in the number of
recipients has been built into existing law; for the most part, it has not been the result of new
The procedures for discretionary and direct spending converge at two critical points in federal
budgeting: formulation of the President’s budget and formulation of the congressional budget
resolution. Both of these policy statements encompass discretionary and direct spending, but the
procedures used in budgeting for these types of expenditure differ greatly. The distinctions have
some notable exceptions. Some procedures associated with direct spending are applied to
particular types of discretionary programs, and vice versa. Nevertheless, the generalizations
presented here help to explain the complications of the budget process and explain how decisions
(1) Budgetary Impact of Authorizing Legislation. An authorization for a discretionary spending
program is only a license to enact an appropriation. The amount of budgetary resources available
for spending is determined in annual appropriations acts. For direct spending programs
(principally entitlements), on the other hand, the authorizing legislation either provides, or
effectively mandates the appropriation of, budget authority. In those entitlement programs that are
subject to annual appropriation, the Appropriations Committees have little or no discretion as to
the amounts they provide.
(2) Committees That Provide or Mandate Budget Authority. The Appropriations Committees have
jurisdiction and effective control over discretionary spending programs, while authorizing
committees effectively control direct spending programs (including those funded in annual
appropriations acts). In fact, committee jurisdiction determines whether a program is classified as
discretionary or direct spending. All spending under the effective control of the Appropriations
Committees is discretionary; everything else is direct spending. Accordingly, when legislation
establishes a program as discretionary or direct spending, it not only determines the character of
spending but the locus of congressional committee control as well.
(3) Frequency of Decision-Making. Discretionary appropriations are, with few exceptions, made
annually for the current or next fiscal year. Direct spending programs typically are established in
permanent law that continues in effect until such time as it is revised or terminated by another
law. The fact that many entitlements have annual appropriations does not diminish the
permanence of the laws governing the amounts spent. It should be noted, however, that some
direct spending programs, such as Medicare, have been subject to frequent legislative changes.
The purpose of such legislation has been to modify existing law, not to provide annual funding.
(4) Means of Enforcing the Budget Resolution. The procedures used by Congress to enforce the
policies set forth in the annual budget resolution differ somewhat for discretionary and direct
spending programs. For both types of spending, Congress relies on allocations made under
Section 302 of the 1974 Congressional Budget Act to ensure that spending legislation reported by
House and Senate committees conforms to established budget policies. But although this
procedure is effective in controlling new legislation—both annual appropriations measures and
new entitlement legislation—it is not an effective control on the spending that results from
existing laws. Hence, Congress relies on reconciliation procedures to enforce budget policies with
respect to existing spending and revenue laws. Reconciliation is not currently applied to
discretionary programs funded in annual appropriations measures.
(5) Budget Enforcement Act Controls. Discretionary programs have been subject to the spending
limits set in the BEA. Direct spending has not been capped, but has operated under the PAYGO
process, which required that direct spending and revenue legislation enacted for a fiscal year not
cause the deficit to rise or the surplus to decrease. The lack of caps was due to the fact that most
direct spending programs are open-ended, with spending determined by eligibility rules and
payment formulas in existing law rather than by new legislation.
Budget enforcement depends on timely information concerning the status of federal revenues and
spending. When it acts on legislation, Congress must be informed of the estimated impact on
future budgets. Measuring these impacts often is referred to as “scoring” or “scorekeeping.”
Scoring discretionary spending measures is a much simpler task than scoring direct spending and
revenue legislation. In the latter case, scoring always is done in reference to baseline projections
of future revenues and spending.
Most appropriations are for a definite amount and the budget authority is provided for a single
fiscal year. The main task is to estimate the outlays that will derive in the next year and beyond
from the budget authority provided in the appropriations bill. CBO and the Appropriations
Committees base these estimates on outlay (or spendout) rates—the percentage of budget
authority that is spent in each year. These outlay rates vary by account and are based on historical
records. For example, if $1 billion is appropriated to an account which has a spendout rate of 80%
in the first fiscal year that funds become available, the outlay estimate for that fiscal year will be
$800 million; the remaining $200 million will become outlays in one or more subsequent years.
Scorekeeping is much more complex in enforcing a PAYGO requirement. For one thing, unlike
appropriations, revenue and direct spending legislation usually is open-ended; it does not specify
the amount by which revenue or spending will be changed. For another, the impact of this type of
legislation continues in future years. In enforcing the statutory PAYGO requirement, Congress
had to estimate the revenue gain or loss for the ensuing five years; under the House and Senate
PAYGO rules, revenue estimates must cover 10 years. Congress cannot develop the revenue
estimates simply by referring to the text of the legislation being scored. It must also take into
account the behavior of taxpayers, economic conditions, and other factors that affect revenue
Congress scores revenue and direct spending legislation by reference to baseline projections
issued by CBO, sometimes in cooperation with OMB. The baseline is an extrapolation of future
budget conditions, typically for each of the next five years, based on the assumption that current
policies will continue in effect. The baseline projections incorporate assumptions about future
inflation and workload changes mandated by law. These projections are made for the budget
aggregates as well as for individual programs and accounts.
When Congress considers revenue or direct spending legislation, CBO estimates the amount of
revenues or outlays that would ensue if the measure were enacted; in the case of most revenue
legislation, CBO uses estimates prepared by the Joint Tax Committee. It then compares this
amount with the baseline projection to score the legislation. Thus, the score measures budgetary
impact as the difference between the amount projected under current policies and the amount
estimated if the legislation were enacted. A score is reported for each of the years and often for
the sum of the years as well.
The BEA gave OMB the authority to determine whether offsets or a sequester were required
under the PAYGO rules. However, Congress usually relies on the CBO score while it is
considering legislation. The OMB and CBO scores on legislation sometimes differ.
In addition to enforcing PAYGO, baseline projections and scoring are used in computing the
amount of deficit reduction agreed to in budget summit negotiations between the President and
Congress and enacted in reconciliation acts.
The Federal Credit Reform Act of 1990 made fundamental changes in the budgetary treatment of
direct loans and guaranteed loans. The reform, which first became effective for FY1992, shifted
the accounting basis for federally provided or guaranteed credit from the amount of cash flowing
into or out of the Treasury to the estimated subsidy cost of the loans. Credit reform entails
complex procedures for estimating these subsidy costs and new accounting mechanisms for
recording various loan transactions. The changes have had only a modest impact on budget totals
but a substantial impact on budgeting for particular loan programs.
The new system requires that budget authority and outlays be budgeted for the estimated subsidy
cost of direct and guaranteed loans. This cost is defined in the 1990 act as “the estimated long-
term cost to the Government of a direct loan or a loan guarantee, calculated on a net present value
basis, excluding administrative costs....”
Under the new system, Congress appropriates budget authority or provides indefinite authority
equal to the subsidy cost. This budget authority is placed in a program account from which funds
are disbursed to a financing account.
Federal budgeting is a cyclical activity that begins with the formulation of the President’s annual
budget and concludes with the audit and review of expenditures. The process spreads over a
multi-year period. The main stages are formulation of the President’s budget, congressional
budget actions, implementation of the budget, and audit and review. While the basic steps
continue from year to year, particular procedures often vary in accord with the style of the
President, the economic and political considerations under which the budget is prepared and
implemented, and other factors.
The activities related to a single fiscal year usually stretch over a period of two-and-a-half
calendar years (or longer). As the budget is being considered, federal agencies must deal with
three different fiscal years at the same time: implementing the budget for the current fiscal year;
seeking funds from Congress for the next fiscal year; and planning for the fiscal year after that.
The President’s budget, officially referred to as the Budget of the United States Government, is
required by law to be submitted to Congress early in the legislative session, no later than the first
Monday in February. The budget consists of estimates of spending, revenues, borrowing, and
debt; policy and legislative recommendations; detailed estimates of the financial operations of
federal agencies and programs; data on the actual and projected performance of the economy; and
other information supporting the President’s recommendations.
The President’s budget is only a request to Congress; Congress is not required to adopt his
recommendations. Nevertheless, the power to formulate and submit the budget is a vital tool in
the President’s direction of the executive branch and of national policy. The President’s proposals
often influence congressional revenue and spending decisions, though the extent of the influence
varies from year to year and depends more on political and fiscal conditions than on the legal
status of the budget.
The Constitution does not provide for a budget, nor does it require the President to make
recommendations concerning the revenues and spending of the federal government. Until 1921,
the federal government operated without a comprehensive presidential budget process. The
Budget and Accounting Act of 1921, as amended, provides for a national budget system. Its basic
requirement is that the President should prepare and submit a budget to Congress each year. The
1921 act established the Bureau of the Budget, now named the Office of Management and Budget
(OMB), to assist the President in preparing and implementing the executive budget. Although it
has been amended many times, this statute provides the legal basis for the presidential budget,
prescribes much of its content, and defines the roles of the President and the agencies in the
Preparation of the President’s budget typically begins in the spring (or earlier) each year, at least
nine months before the budget is submitted to Congress, about 17 months before the start of the
fiscal year to which it pertains, and about 29 months before the close of that fiscal year. The early
stages of budget preparation occur in federal agencies. When they begin work on the budget for a
fiscal year, agencies already are implementing the budget for the fiscal year in progress and
awaiting final appropriations actions and other legislative decisions for the fiscal year after that.
The long lead times and the fact that appropriations have not yet been made for the next year
mean that the budget is prepared with a great deal of uncertainty about economic conditions,
presidential policies, and congressional actions.
As agencies formulate their budgets, they maintain continuing contact with the OMB examiners
assigned to them. These contacts provide agencies with guidance in preparing their budgets and
also enable them to alert OMB to any needs or problems that may loom ahead. Agency requests
are submitted to OMB in late summer or early fall; these are reviewed by OMB staff in
consultation with the President and his aides. The 1921 Budget and Accounting Act bars agencies
from submitting their budget requests directly to Congress. Moreover, OMB regulations provide
for confidentiality in all budget requests and recommendations prior to the transmittal of the
President’s budget to Congress. However, it is quite common for internal budget documents to
become public while the budget is still being formulated.
The format and content of the budget are partly determined by law, but the 1921 act authorizes
the President to set forth the budget “in such form and detail” as he may determine. Over the
years, there has been an increase in the types of information and explanatory material presented in
the budget documents.
In most years, the budget is submitted as a multi-volume set consisting of a main document
setting forth the President’s message to Congress and an analysis and justification of his major
proposals (the Budget) and supplementary documents providing account and program level
details, historical information, and special budgetary analyses (the Budget Appendix, Historical
Tables, and Analytical Perspectives), among other things.
Much of the budget is an estimate of requirements under existing law rather than a request for
congressional action (more than half of the budget authority in the budget becomes available
without congressional action). The President is required to submit a budget update (reflecting
changed economic conditions, congressional actions, and other factors), referred to as the Mid-
Session Review, by July 15 each year. The President may revise his recommendations any time
during the year.
The President and his budget office have an important role once the budget is submitted to
Congress. OMB officials and other presidential advisors appear before congressional committees
to discuss overall policy and economic issues, but they generally leave formal discussions of
specific programs to the affected agencies. Agencies thus bear the principal responsibility for
defending the President’s program recommendations at congressional hearings.
Agencies are supposed to justify the President’s recommendations, not their own. OMB maintains
an elaborate legislative clearance process to ensure that agency budget justifications, testimony,
and other submissions are consistent with presidential policy. As the session unfolds, the
President may formally signal his position on pending legislation through the issuance of a
Statement of Administration Policy (SAP). These statements, which are maintained by OMB on
its website, sometimes are used to convey a veto threat against legislation the President feels
requires modifications to meet his approval.
Increasingly in recent years, the President and his chief budgetary aides have engaged in
extensive negotiations with Congress over major budgetary legislation. These negotiations
sometimes have occurred as formal budget “summits” and at other times as less visible, behind-
The Congressional Budget and Impoundment Control Act of 1974 establishes the congressional
budget process as the means by which Congress coordinates the various budget-related actions
(such as the consideration of appropriations and revenue measures) taken by it during the course
of the year. The process is centered around an annual concurrent resolution on the budget that sets
aggregate budget policies and functional priorities for at least the next five fiscal years.
Because a concurrent resolution is not a law—it cannot be signed or vetoed by the President—the
budget resolution does not have statutory effect; no money can be raised or spent pursuant to it.
The main purpose of the budget resolution is to establish the framework within which Congress
considers separate revenue, spending, and other budget-related legislation. Revenue and spending
amounts set in the budget resolution establish the basis for the enforcement of congressional
budget policies through points of order. The budget resolution also initiates the reconciliation
process for conforming existing revenue and spending laws to congressional budget policies.
The congressional budget process begins upon the presentation of the President’s budget in
January or February (see Table 1). The timetable set forth in the 1974 Congressional Budget Act
calls for the final adoption of the budget resolution by April 15, well before the beginning of the
new fiscal year on October 1. Although the House and Senate often pass the budget resolution
separately before April 15, they often do not reach final agreement on it until after the deadline—
sometimes months later. The 1974 act bars consideration of revenue, spending, and debt-limit
measures for the upcoming fiscal year until the budget resolution for that year has been adopted,
but certain exceptions are provided (such as the exception that allows the House to consider the
regular appropriations bills after May 15, even if the budget resolution has not been adopted by
Table 1. Congressional Budget Process Timetable
Deadline Action to be completed
First Monday in February President submits budget to Congress.
February 15 CBO submits report on economic and budget outlook to Budget committees.
Six weeks after President’s Committees submit reports on views and estimates to respective Budget
April 1 Senate Budget Committee reports budget resolution.
April 15 Congress completes action on budget resolution.
June 10 House Appropriations Committee reports last regular appropriations bill.
June 30 House completes action on regular appropriations bills and any required
July 15 President submits mid-session review of his budget to Congress.
October 1 Fiscal year begins.
The 1974 Congressional Budget Act requires the budget resolution, for each fiscal year covered,
to set forth budget aggregates and spending levels for each functional category of the budget. The
aggregates included in the budget resolution are as follows:
• total revenues (and the amount by which the total is to be changed by legislative
• total new budget authority and outlays;
• the surplus or deficit; and
• the debt limit.
With regard to each of the functional categories, the budget resolution must indicate for each
fiscal year the amounts of new budget authority and outlays, and they must add up to the
corresponding spending or aggregates.
Aggregate amounts in the budget resolution do not reflect the revenues or spending of the Social
Security trust funds, although these amounts are set forth separately in the budget resolution for
purposes of Senate enforcement procedures.
The budget resolution does not allocate funds among specific programs or accounts, but the major
program assumptions underlying the functional amounts are often discussed in the reports
accompanying each resolution. Some recent reports have contained detailed information on the
program levels assumed in the resolution. These assumptions are not binding on the affected
committees. Finally, the 1974 act allows certain additional matters to be included in the budget
resolution. The most important optional feature of a budget resolution is reconciliation directives
The House and Senate Budget Committees are responsible for marking up and reporting the
budget resolution. In the course of developing the budget resolution, the Budget Committees hold
hearings, receive “views and estimates” reports from other committees, and obtain information
from CBO. These “views and estimates” reports of House and Senate committees provide the
Budget Committees with information on the preferences and legislative plans of congressional
committees regarding budgetary matters within their jurisdiction.
CBO assists the Budget Committees in developing the budget resolution by issuing, early each
year, a report on the economic and budget outlook that includes baseline budget projections. The
baseline projections presented in the report are supported by more detailed projections for
accounts and programs; CBO usually revises the baseline projections one or more times before
the Budget Committees mark up the budget resolution. In addition, CBO issues a report analyzing
the President’s budgetary proposals in light of CBO’s own economic and technical assumptions.
In past years, CBO also issued an annual report on spending and revenue options for reducing the
deficit or maintaining the surplus.
The extent to which the Budget Committees (and the House and Senate) consider particular
programs when they act on the budget resolution varies from year to year. Specific program
decisions are supposed to be left to the Appropriations Committees and other committees of
jurisdiction, but there is a strong likelihood that major issues will be discussed in markup, in the
Budget Committees’ reports, and during floor consideration of the budget resolution. Although
any programmatic assumptions generated in this process are not binding on the committees of
jurisdiction, they often influence the final outcome.
Floor consideration of the budget resolution is guided by House and Senate rules and practices. In
the House, the Rules Committee usually reports a special rule (a simple House resolution),
which, once approved, establishes the terms and conditions under which the budget resolution is
considered. This special rule typically specifies which amendments may be considered and the
sequence in which they are to be offered and voted on. It has been the practice in recent years to
allow consideration of a few amendments (as substitutes for the entire resolution) that present
broad policy choices. In the Senate, the amendment process is less structured, relying on
agreements reached by the leadership through a broad consultative process. The amendments
offered in the Senate may entail major policy choices or may be focused on a single issue.
Achievement of the policies set forth in the annual budget resolution depends on the legislative
actions taken by Congress (and their approval or disapproval by the President), the performance
of the economy, and technical considerations. Many of the factors that determine whether
budgetary goals will be met are beyond the direct control of Congress. If economic conditions—
growth, employment levels, inflation, and so forth—vary significantly from projected levels, so
too will actual levels of revenue and spending. Similarly, actual levels may differ substantially if
the technical factors upon which estimates are based, such as the rate at which agencies spend
their discretionary funds or participants become eligible for entitlement programs, prove faulty.
Congress’s regular tools for enforcing the budget resolution each year are overall spending
ceilings and revenue floors and committee allocations and subdivisions of spending. In addition,
the Senate in some years has enforced discretionary spending limits in the budget resolution,
which paralleled the adjustable limits established in statute and enforced by the sequestration
process, and both chambers have imposed PAYGO rules on direct spending and revenue
legislation. Finally, the House and Senate in recent years have included procedural features in
budget resolutions to limit the use of advance appropriations.
In order for the enforcement procedures to work, Congress must have access to complete and up-
to-date budgetary information so that it can relate individual measures to overall budget policies
and determine whether adoption of a particular measure would be consistent with those policies.
Substantive and procedural points of order are designed to obtain congressional compliance with
budget rules. A point of order may bar House or Senate consideration of legislation that violates
the spending ceilings and revenue floors in the budget resolution, committee subdivisions of
spending, or congressional budget procedures.
In the early years after the 1974 Congressional Budget Act, the principal enforcement mechanism
was the ceiling on total budget authority and outlays and the floor under total revenues set forth in
the budget resolution. The limitations inherent in this mechanism soon became apparent. For
example, the issue of controlling breaches of the spending ceilings usually did not arise until
Congress acted on supplemental appropriations acts, when the fiscal year was well underway. The
emergency nature of the legislation often made it difficult to uphold the ceilings.
As part of the budget process changes made by the BEA of 1997, the aggregate levels set in the
budget resolution, and the associated discretionary spending limits and committee spending
allocations, may be adjusted periodically for various factors. The adjustments, as authorized
under a new Section 314 of the 1974 Congressional Budget Act, are made pursuant to the
consideration of legislation in several different categories and were meant to parallel similar
adjustments made automatically in the statutory discretionary spending limits. Adjustments may
be triggered by legislation in several categories, the most important of which is measures
containing designated emergency amounts of discretionary spending, direct spending, or
revenues. In addition to these adjustments, changes sometimes are made in budget resolutions by
virtue of the operation of reserve funds. Generally, reserve funds allow increases to be made in
various spending levels associated with the budget resolution for legislation meeting criteria
specified in the budget resolution, as long as any increases spending from the legislation is offset
(e.g., by revenue increases) so as to be deficit neutral.
In view of the inadequacies in the early years of congressional budgeting of relying on
enforcement of the budget totals, Congress changed the focus of enforcement in the 1980s to the
committee allocations and subdivisions of spending made pursuant to Section 302 of the act. The
key to enforcing budget policy is to relate the budgetary impact of individual pieces of legislation
to the overall budget policy. Because Congress operates through its committee system, an
essential step in linking particular measures to the budget is to allocate the spending amounts set
forth in the budget resolution among House and Senate committees.
Section 302(a) provides for allocations to committees to be made in the statement of managers
accompanying the conference report on the budget resolution. A Section 302(a) allocation is made
to each committee which has jurisdiction over spending, both for the budget year and the full
period covered by the budget resolution—at least five fiscal years.
The committee allocations do not take into account jurisdiction over discretionary authorizations
funded in annual appropriations acts. The amounts of new budget authority and outlays allocated
to committees in the House or Senate may not exceed the aggregate amounts of budget authority
and outlays set forth in the budget resolution. Although these allocations are made by the Budget
Committees, they are not the unilateral preferences of these committees. They are based on
assumptions and understandings developed in the course of formulating the budget resolution.
After the allocations are made under Section 302(a), the House and Senate Appropriations
Committees subdivide the amounts they receive among their 12 subcommittees, as required by
Section 302(b). The subcommittees’ Section 302(b) subdivisions may not exceed the total amount
allocated to the committee. Each Appropriations Committee reports its subdivisions to its
respective chamber; the appropriations bills may not be considered until such a report has been
As mentioned previously, scoring (also called scorekeeping) is the process of measuring the
budgetary effects of pending and enacted legislation and assessing its impact on a budget plan—
in this case, the budget resolution. In the congressional budget process, scoring serves several
broad purposes. First, scoring informs Members of Congress and the public about the budgetary
consequences of their actions. When a budgetary measure is under consideration, scoring
information lets Members know whether adopting the amendment or passing the bill at hand
would breach the budget. Further, scoring information enables Members to judge what must be
done in upcoming legislative action to achieve the year’s budgetary goals. Finally, scoring is
designed to assist Congress in enforcing its budget plans. In this regard, scorekeeping is used
largely to determine whether points of order under the 1974 act may be sustained against
legislation violating budget resolution levels.
The principal scorekeepers for Congress are the House and Senate Budget Committees, which
provide the presiding officers of their respective chambers with the estimates needed to determine
if legislation violates the aggregate levels in the budget resolution or the committee subdivisions
of spending. The Budget Committees make summary scoring reports available to Members on a
frequent basis, usually geared to the pace of legislative activity. CBO assists Congress in these
activities by preparing cost estimates of legislation, which are included in committee reports, and
scoring reports for the Budget committees. The Joint Committee on Taxation supports Congress
by preparing estimates of the budgetary impact of revenue legislation.
The 1974 Congressional Budget Act provides for both substantive and procedural points of order
to block violations of budget resolution policies and congressional budget procedures. One
element of substantive enforcement is based on Section 311 of the act, which bars Congress from
considering legislation that would cause total revenues to fall below the level set in the budget
resolution or total new budget authority or total outlays to exceed the budgeted level. The House
and Senate both enforce the spending ceilings for the first fiscal year only; the revenue floor,
however, is enforced for the first fiscal year and the full number of fiscal years covered by the
In the House (but not the Senate), Section 311 does not apply to spending legislation if the
committee reporting the measure has stayed within its allocation of new discretionary budget
authority. Accordingly, the House may take up any spending measure that is within the
appropriate committee allocations, even if it would cause total spending to be exceeded. Neither
chamber bars spending legislation that would cause functional allocations in the budget resolution
to be exceeded.
Section 302(f) of the 1974 act bars the House and Senate from considering any spending measure
that would cause the relevant committee’s spending allocations to be exceeded; in the House, the
point of order applies only to violations of allocations of new discretionary budget authority.
Further, the point of order also applies to suballocations of spending made by the Appropriations
In addition to points of order to enforce compliance with the budget resolution and the allocations
and subdivisions made pursuant to it, the 1974 act contains points of order to ensure compliance
with its procedures. Perhaps the most important of these is Section 303, which bars consideration
of any revenue, spending, entitlement, or debt-limit measure prior to adoption of the budget
resolution. However, the rules of the House permit it to consider regular appropriations bills after
May 15, even if the budget resolution has not yet been adopted.
When the House or Senate considers a revenue or a spending measure, the chairman of the
respective Budget Committee sometimes makes a statement advising the chamber as to whether
the measure violates any of these points of order. If no point of order is made, or if the point of
order is waived, the House or Senate may consider a measure despite any violations of the 1974
act. The House often waives points of order by adopting a special rule. The Senate may waive
points of order by unanimous consent or by motion under Section 904 of the act. The Senate
requires a three-fifths vote of the membership to waive certain provisions of the act.
In four instances, in 1998 (for FY1999), 2002 (for FY2003), 2004 (for FY2005), and 2006 (for
FY2007), the House and Senate failed to reach agreement on a budget resolution. On these
occasions, one or both houses agreed to their own “deeming resolutions,” which established the
basis for enforcing points of order under the 1974 act in that house only.
Sequestration was the principle means used to enforce statutory budget enforcement policies in
place from 1985 through 2002. Although sequestration procedures currently are not in effect, they
are described here because they could be employed again if Congress and the President decide to
reinstate the statutory enforcement policies.
Sequestration involved the issuance of a presidential order that permanently cancelled budgetary
resources (except for revolving funds, special funds, trust funds, and certain offsetting
collections) for the purpose of achieving a required amount of outlay savings to reduce the deficit.
Once sequestration was triggered by an executive determination, spending reductions were made
automatically; this process, therefore, was regarded by many as providing a strong incentive for
Congress and the President to reach agreement on legislation that would avoid a sequester.
From its inception in 1985 until its revision by the Budget Enforcement Act (BEA) in 1990, the
process was tied solely to the enforcement of fixed deficit targets. The BEA changed the
sequestration process substantially. First, it effectively eliminated the deficit targets as a factor in
budget enforcement. Second, the BEA established adjustable limits on discretionary spending
funded in the annual appropriations process. Third, the BEA created pay-as-you-go procedures to
require that increases in direct spending (i.e., spending controlled outside of the annual
appropriations process) or decreases in revenues due to legislative action were offset so that there
was effectively no net increase in the deficit or reduction of the surplus.
The BEA established adjustable limits on discretionary spending for FY1991-FY1995. These
limits were extended through FY1998 in 1993. The Budget Enforcement Act (BEA) of 1997
revised the limits for FY1998 and provided new limits through FY2002. The limits were
established for the following categories of discretionary spending: defense and nondefense, for
FY1998-FY1999; discretionary (a single, general purpose category), for FY2000-FY2002; and
violent crime reduction, for FY1998-FY2000. In 1998, as part of the Transportation Equity Act st
for the 21 Century, separate categories were added for highway and mass transit spending.
Finally, a spending conservation category was added in 2000. The limits expired at the end of th
FY2002 and efforts to renew them in the 108 Congress were unsuccessful. It is unclear at this th
point whether the 109 Congress will decide to revive them.
The discretionary spending limits had to be adjusted periodically by the President for various
factors, including (among others), changes in concepts and definitions, a special outlay allowance
(to accommodate estimating differences between OMB and CBO), and the enactment of
legislation providing emergency funding and funding for the International Monetary Fund,
international arrearages, an earned income tax credit compliance initiative, and other specially-
Under the pay-as-you-go (PAYGO) process created by the BEA, legislation increasing direct
spending or decreasing revenues for a fiscal year had to be offset so that the balance on the
PAYGO scorecard for that year did not fall below zero. The PAYGO process did not require any
offsetting action when the spending increase or revenue decrease was due to the operation of
existing law, such as an increase in the number of persons participating in the Medicare program.
Direct spending consists largely of spending for entitlement programs. Most direct spending and
revenue programs are established under permanent law, so there is not necessarily any need for
recurring legislative action on them (and the PAYGO process did not require such action).
The PAYGO process did not preclude Congress from enacting legislation to increase direct
spending; it only required that the increase be offset by reductions in other direct spending
programs (which could include increases in offsetting receipts), by increases in revenues, or by a
combination of the two in order to avoid a sequester. If a sequester under this process was
required, it would have had to offset the amount of any net deficit increase (or surplus reduction)
for the fiscal year caused by the enactment of legislation in the current and prior sessions of
Congress, and would have been applied to nonexempt direct spending programs.
Spending for Social Security benefits and federal deposit insurance commitments, as well as
emergency direct spending and revenue legislation (so designated by both the President and by
Congress), was exempted completely from the PAYGO sequestration process. All remaining
direct spending programs were covered by the PAYGO process to the extent that legislation
affecting their spending levels was counted in determining whether a net increase or decrease in
the deficit has occurred for a fiscal year. If a PAYGO sequester had occurred, however, many
direct spending programs would have been exempt from reduction.
In 1997, coverage of the PAYGO requirement was extended to legislation enacted through
FY2002; however, the PAYGO process was slated to remain in effect through FY2006 to deal
with the outyear effects of such measures. Consequently, a PAYGO sequester could have occurred
in FY2003-FY2006 based on legislation enacted before the end of FY2002. At the end of the th
effectively terminating the PAYGO requirement.
The multiple sequestration procedures established by the BEA remained automatic, to be
triggered by a report from the OMB director. For sequestration purposes generally, there was only
one triggering report issued each year (just after the end of the congressional session), but
preliminary and update sequestration reports were issued earlier in the session. Additionally,
OMB reports triggering a sequester for discretionary spending could be issued during the
following session if legislative developments so warranted (i.e., the enactment of supplemental
appropriations). The CBO director was required to provide advisory sequestration reports, shortly
before the OMB director’s reports were due.
Sequestration procedures could be suspended in the event a declaration of war was enacted or if
Congress enacted a special joint resolution triggered by the issuance of a CBO report indicating
“low growth” in the economy. Also, there were several special procedures under the act by which
the final sequestration order for a fiscal year could be modified or the implementation of the order
The spending policies of the budget resolution generally are implemented through two different
types of spending legislation. Policies involving discretionary spending are implemented in the
context of annual appropriations acts, whereas policies affecting direct or mandatory spending
(which, for the most part, involves entitlement programs) are carried out in substantive
All discretionary spending is under the jurisdiction of the House and Senate Appropriations
Committees. Direct spending is under the jurisdiction of the various legislative committees of the
House and Senate; the House Ways and Means Committee and the Senate Finance Committee
have the largest shares of direct spending jurisdiction. (Some entitlement programs, such as
Medicaid, are funded in annual appropriations acts, but such spending is not considered to be
discretionary.) The enforcement procedures under the congressional budget process, mentioned
above, apply equally to discretionary and direct spending.
In recent years, many of the most significant changes in direct spending programs, from a
budgetary standpoint, have been made in the reconciliation process (see discussion below). The
greatest number of spending decisions in any year occurs in the annual appropriations process.
The rules of the House and (to a lesser extent) the Senate require that agencies and programs be
authorized in law before an appropriation is made for them. An authorizing act is a law that (1)
establishes a program or agency and the terms and conditions under which it operates; and (2)
authorizes the enactment of appropriations for that program or agency. Authorizing legislation
may originate in either the House or the Senate and may be considered any time during the year.
Many agencies and programs have temporary authorizations that have to be renewed annually or
every few years.
Action on appropriations measures sometimes is delayed by the failure of Congress to enact
necessary authorizing legislation. The House and Senate often waive or disregard their rules
against unauthorized appropriations for ongoing programs that have not yet been reauthorized.
The budgetary impact of authorizing legislation depends on whether it contains only discretionary
authorizations (for which funding is provided in annual appropriations acts) or direct spending,
which itself enables an agency to enter into obligations.
An appropriations act is a law passed by Congress that provides federal agencies legal authority
to incur obligations and the Treasury Department authority to make payments for designated
purposes. The power of appropriation derives from the Constitution, which in Article I, Section 9,
provides that “[n]o money shall be drawn from the Treasury but in consequence of appropriations
made by law.” The power to appropriate is exclusively a legislative power; it functions as a
limitation on the executive branch. An agency may not spend more than the amount appropriated
to it, and it may use available funds only for the purposes and according to the conditions
provided by Congress.
The Constitution does not require annual appropriations, but since the First Congress the practice
has been to make appropriations for a single fiscal year. Appropriations must be used (obligated)
in the fiscal year for which they are provided, unless the law provides that they shall be available
for a longer period of time. All provisions in an appropriations act, such as limitations on the use
of funds, expire at the end of the fiscal year, unless the language of the act extends their period of
The President requests annual appropriations in his budget submitted each year. In support of the
President’s appropriations requests, agencies submit justification materials to the House and
Senate Appropriations Committees. These materials provide considerably more detail than is
contained in the President’s budget and are used in support of agency testimony during
Appropriations subcommittee hearings on the President’s budget.
Congress passes three main types of appropriations measures. Regular appropriations acts
provide budget authority to agencies for the next fiscal year. Supplemental appropriations acts
provide additional budget authority during the current fiscal year when the regular appropriation
is insufficient or to finance activities not provided for in the regular appropriation. Continuing
appropriations acts provide stop-gap (or full-year) funding for agencies that have not received a
In a typical session, Congress acts on 12 regular appropriations bills and at least two
supplemental appropriations measures. Because of recurring delays in the appropriations process,
Congress also typically passes one or more continuing appropriations each year. The scope and
duration of these measures depend on the status of the regular appropriations bills and the degree
of budgetary conflict between the President and Congress. In recent years, Congress has merged
two or more of the regular appropriations acts for a fiscal year into a single, omnibus
By precedent, appropriations originate in the House of Representatives. In the House,
appropriations measures are originated by the Appropriations Committee (when it marks up or
reports the measure) rather than being introduced by a Member beforehand. Before the full
Committee acts on the bill, it is considered in the relevant Appropriations subcommittee (the
House and Senate Appropriations Committees have 12 parallel subcommittees). The House
subcommittees typically hold extensive hearings on appropriations requests shortly after the
President’s budget is submitted. In marking up their appropriations bills, the various
subcommittees are guided by the discretionary spending limits and the allocations made to them
under Section 302 of the 1974 Congressional Budget Act.
The Senate usually considers appropriations measures after they have been passed by the House.
When House action on appropriations bills is delayed, however, the Senate sometimes expedites
its actions by considering a Senate-numbered bill up to the stage of final passage. Upon receipt of
the House-passed bill in the Senate, it is amended with the text that the Senate already has agreed
to (as a single amendment) and then passed by the Senate. Hearings in the Senate Appropriations
subcommittees generally are not as extensive as those held by counterpart subcommittees in the
The basic unit of an appropriation is an account. A single unnumbered paragraph in an
appropriations act comprises one account and all provisions of that paragraph pertain to that
account and to no other, unless the text expressly gives them broader scope. Any provision
limiting the use of funds enacted in that paragraph is a restriction on that account alone.
Over the years, appropriations have been consolidated into a relatively small number of accounts.
It is typical for a federal agency to have a single account for all its expenses of operation and
additional accounts for other purposes such as construction. Accordingly, most appropriation
accounts encompass a number of activities or projects. The appropriation sometimes earmarks
specific amounts to particular activities within the account, but the more common practice is to
provide detailed information on the amounts intended for each activity in other sources
(principally, the committee reports accompanying the measures).
In addition to the substantive limitations (and other provisions) associated with each account,
each appropriations act has “general provisions” that apply to all of the accounts in a title or in the
whole act. These general provisions appear as numbered sections, usually at the end of the title or
The standard appropriation is for a single fiscal year—the funds have to be obligated during the
fiscal year for which they are provided; they lapse if not obligated by the end of that year. An
appropriation that does not mention the period during which the funds are to be available is a one-
year appropriation. Congress also makes no-year appropriations by specifying that the funds shall
remain available until expended. No-year funds are carried over to future years, even if they have
not been obligated. Congress sometimes makes multiyear appropriations, which provide for funds
to be available for two or more fiscal years.
Appropriations measures also contain other types of provisions that serve specialized purposes.
These include provisions that liquidate (pay off) obligations made pursuant to certain contract
authority; reappropriate funds provided in previous years; transfer funds from one account to
another; rescind funds (or release deferred funds); or set ceilings on the amount of obligations
that can be made under permanent appropriations, on the amount of direct or guaranteed loans
that can be made, or on the amount of administrative expenses that can be incurred during the
fiscal year. In addition to providing funds, appropriations acts often contain substantive
limitations on government agencies.
Detailed information on how funds are to be spent, along with other directives or guidance, is
provided in the reports accompanying the various appropriations measures. Agencies ordinarily
abide by report language in spending the funds appropriated by Congress.
The appropriations reports do not comment on every item of expenditure. Report language is
most likely when the Appropriations Committee prefers to spend more or less on a particular item
than the President has requested or when the committee wants to earmark funds for a particular
project or activity. When a particular item is mentioned by the committee, there is a strong
expectation that the agency will adhere to the instructions.
Article I, Section 8 of the Constitution gives Congress the power to levy “taxes, duties, imposts,
and excises.” Section 7 of this article requires that all revenue measures originate in the House of
Re presenta ti ve s.
In the House, revenue legislation is under the jurisdiction of the Ways and Means Committee; in
the Senate, jurisdiction is held by the Finance Committee. While House rules bar other
committees from reporting revenue legislation, sometimes another committee will report
legislation levying user fees on a class that benefits from a particular service or program or that is
being regulated by a federal agency. In many of these cases, the user fee legislation is referred
subsequently to the Ways and Means Committee.
Most revenues derive from existing provisions of the tax code or Social Security law, which
continue in effect from year to year unless changed by Congress. This tax structure can be
expected to produce increasing amounts of revenue in future years as the economy expands and
incomes rise. Nevertheless, Congress usually makes some changes in the tax laws each year,
either to raise or lower revenues or to redistribute the tax burden.
Congress typically acts on revenue legislation pursuant to proposals in the President’s budget. An
early step in congressional work on revenue legislation is publication by CBO of its own
estimates (developed in consultation with the Joint Tax Committee) of the revenue impact of the
President’s budget proposals. The congressional estimates often differ significantly from those
presented in the President’s budget.
The revenue totals in the budget resolution establish the framework for subsequent action on
revenue measures. The budget resolution contains only revenue totals and total recommended
changes; it does not allocate these totals among revenue sources (although it does set out
Medicare receipts separately), nor does it specify which provisions of the tax code are to be
The House and Senate often consider major revenue measures, such as the Tax Reform Act of
1986, under their regular legislative procedures. However, as has been the case with direct
spending programs, many of the most significant changes in revenue policy in recent years have
been made in the context of the reconciliation process. Although revenue changes usually are
incorporated into omnibus budget reconciliation measures, along with spending changes (and
sometimes debt-limit increases), revenue reconciliation legislation may be considered on a
separate legislative track (e.g., the Tax Equity and Fiscal Responsibility Act of 1982).
When the reconciliation process is used to advance revenue reductions (or spending increases)
that would lead to a deficit, or would enlarge an existing deficit, Section 313 of the 1974
Congressional Budget Act (referred to as the Senate’s “Byrd rule”) limits the legislative changes
to the period covered by the reconciliation directives. Accordingly, some recent tax cuts have
been subject to sunset dates.
In enacting revenue legislation, Congress often establishes or alters tax expenditures. The term
“tax expenditures” is defined in the 1974 Congressional Budget Act to include revenue losses due
to deductions, exemptions, credits, and other exceptions to the basic tax structure. Tax
expenditures are a means by which the federal government pursues public policy objectives and
can be regarded as alternatives to other policy instruments such as grants or loans. The Joint Tax
Committee estimates the revenue effects of legislation changing tax expenditures, and it also
publishes five-year projections of these provisions as an annual committee print.
When the revenues collected by the federal government are not sufficient to cover its
expenditures, it must finance the shortfall through borrowing. Federal borrowing is subject to a
public debt limit established by statute. When the federal government operates with a budget
deficit, the public debt limit must be increased periodically. The frequency of congressional
action to raise the debt limit has ranged in the past from several times in one year to once in
several years. When the federal government incurred large and growing surpluses in recent years,
Congress did not have to increase the debt limit, but the enactment of increases in the debt limit
has again become necessary with the recurrence of deficits.
Legislation to raise the public debt limit falls under the jurisdiction of the House Ways and Means
Committee and the Senate Finance Committee. Although consideration of such measures in the
House usually is constrained through the use of special rules, Senate action sometimes is far-
ranging with regard to the issues covered. In the past, the Senate has added many non-germane
provisions to debt-limit measures, such as the 1985 Balanced Budget Act.
In 1979, the House amended its rules to provide for the automatic engrossment of a measure
increasing the debt limit upon final adoption of the conference report on the budget resolution.
The rule, House Rule XLIX (commonly referred to as the Gephardt rule), was intended to
facilitate quick action on debt increases. However, the Senate had no comparable rule. For years,
the House and Senate could enact debt-limit legislation originating under the Gephardt rule or
arising under conventional legislative procedures. During the past decade, Congress has enacted
debt-limit increases as part of omnibus budget reconciliation measures, continuing appropriations
acts, and other legislation. The House recodified the Gephardt rule as House Rule XXIII at the thth
beginning of the 106 Congress, repealed it at the beginning of the 107 Congress, and reinstated th
it, as new Rule XXVII, at the beginning of the 108 Congress.
Beginning in 1980, Congress has used reconciliation legislation to implement many of its most
significant budget policies. Section 310 of the 1974 Congressional Budget Act sets forth a special
procedure for the development and consideration of reconciliation legislation. Reconciliation
legislation is used by Congress to bring existing revenue and spending law into conformity with
the policies in the budget resolution. Reconciliation is an optional process, but Congress has used
it more years than not; during the period covering 1980 through 2007, 19 reconciliation measures
were enacted into law and three were vetoed.
The reconciliation process has two stages—the adoption of reconciliation instructions in the
budget resolution and the enactment of reconciliation legislation that implements changes in
revenue or spending laws. Although reconciliation has been used since 1980, specific procedures
tend to vary from year to year.
Reconciliation is used to change the amount of revenues, budget authority, or outlays generated
by existing law. In a few instances, reconciliation has been used to adjust the public debt limit. On
the spending side, the process focuses on entitlement laws; it may not be used, however, to impel
changes in Social Security law. Reconciliation sometimes has been applied to discretionary
authorizations (which are funded in annual appropriations acts), but this is not the usual practice.
Reconciliation was used in the 1980s and into the 1990s as a deficit-reduction tool. Beginning in
the latter part of the 1990s, some reconciliation measures were used principally to reduce th
revenues, thereby increasing the deficit. At the beginning of the 110 Congress, both chambers
adopted rules requiring that reconciliation be used solely for deficit reduction.
Reconciliation begins with a directive in a budget resolution instructing designated committees to
report legislation changing existing law or pending legislation. These instructions have three
components: (1) they name the committee (or committees) that are directed to report legislation;
(2) they specify the amounts by which existing laws are to be changed (but do not identify how
these changes are to be made, which laws are to be altered, or the programs to be affected); and
(3) they usually set a deadline by which the designated committees are to recommend the changes
in law. The instructions typically cover the same fiscal years covered by the budget resolution.
Sometimes, budget resolutions have provided for more than one reconciliation measure to be
considered during a session.
The dollar amounts are computed with reference to the CBO baseline. Thus, a change represents
the amount by which revenues or spending would decrease or increase from baseline levels as a
result of changes made in existing law. This computation is itself based on assumptions about the
future level of revenues or spending under current law (or policy) and about the dollar changes
that would ensue from new legislation. Hence, the savings associated with the reconciliation
process are assumed savings. The actual changes in revenues or spending may differ from those
estimated when the reconciliation instructions are formulated.
Although the instructions do not mention the programs to be changed, they are based on
assumptions as to the savings or deficit reduction (or, in some cases, increases) that would result
from particular changes in revenue provisions or spending programs. These program assumptions
are sometimes printed in the reports on the budget resolution. Even when the assumptions are not
published, committees and Members usually have a good idea of the specific program changes
contemplated by the reconciliation instructions.
A committee has discretion to decide on the legislative changes to be recommended. It is not
bound by the program changes recommended or assumed by the Budget Committees in the
reports accompanying the budget resolution. Further, a committee has to recommend legislation
estimated to produce dollar changes for each category delineated in the instructions to it.
When a budget resolution containing a reconciliation instruction has been approved by Congress,
the instruction has the status of an order by the House and Senate to designated committees to
recommend legislation, usually by a date certain. It is expected that committees will carry out the
instructions of their parent chamber, but the 1974 Congressional Budget Act does not provide any
sanctions against committees that fail to do so.
When more than one committee in the House and Senate is subject to reconciliation directives,
the proposed legislative changes usually are consolidated by the Budget Committees into an
omnibus bill. The 1974 Congressional Budget Act does not permit the Budget Committees to
revise substantively the legislation recommended by the committees of jurisdiction. This
restriction pertains even when the Budget Committees estimate that the proposed legislation will
fall short of the dollar changes called for in the instructions. Sometimes, the Budget Committees,
working with the leadership, develop alternatives to the committee recommendations, to be
offered as floor amendments, so as to achieve greater compliance with the reconciliation
The 1974 act requires that amendments offered to reconciliation legislation in either the House or
the Senate be deficit neutral. To meet this requirement, an amendment reducing revenues or
increasing spending must offset these deficit increases by equivalent revenue increases or
During the first several years’ experience with reconciliation, the legislation contained many
provisions that were extraneous to the purpose of reducing the deficit. The reconciliation
submissions of committees included such things as provisions that had no budgetary effect, that
increased spending or reduced revenues, or that violated another committee’s jurisdiction.
In 1985, the Senate adopted a rule (commonly referred to as the Byrd rule) on a temporary basis
as a means of curbing these practices. The Byrd rule has been extended and modified several
times over the years. In 1990, the Byrd rule was incorporated into the 1974 Congressional Budget
Act as Section 313 and made permanent.
Although the House has no rule comparable to the Senate’s Byrd rule, it may use other devices to
control the inclusion of extraneous matter in reconciliation legislation. In particular, the House
has used special rules to make in order amendments that strike such matter.
Reform of congressional earmarking practices in appropriations, direct spending, and tax
legislation (and accompanying reports) was considered in 2006 by the House and Senate, but the
two chambers did not come to a resolution of the issue. The issue has been addressed again by th
both chambers during the 110 Congress.
While definitions of earmarking vary, an earmark generally is considered to be an allocation of
resources to specifically-targeted beneficiaries, either through earmarks of discretionary or direct
spending, limited tax benefits, or limited tariff benefits. Earmarks may be proposed by the
President or may be originated by Congress. Concern about existing earmarking practices arose
because some of them were inserted into legislation or accompanying reports without any
identification of the sponsor, and the belief that many earmarks were not subject to proper
scrutiny and diverted resources to lesser-priority items or items without sufficient justification,
thereby contributing to wasteful spending or revenue loss.
The essential feature of earmark reform proposals is a bar against the consideration of legislation
that does not identify individual earmarks and the Members who sponsored them, the distribution
of such information in a way that makes it readily available before the legislation is considered,
and certification by earmark sponsors that neither they nor their spouses have a financial interest
in the earmark.
An earmark reform provision, requiring the identification of earmarks and their sponsors before
legislation may be considered and imposing other restrictions on the use of earmarks, was th
contained in Title IV (Section 404) of the House’s rules package for the 110 Congress, H.Res. 6,
adopted on January 5, 2007. The earmark reform provisions were added to the rules of the House
as Clause 9 of Rule XXI. The earmark identification requirement applies to all legislation; if no
earmarks are included, then a statement to that effect must be supplied.
Later in the session, on June 18, 2007, the House adopted H.Res. 491, a measure dealing (for the th
remainder of the 110 Congress) with the consideration of conference reports on regular
appropriations acts containing earmarks that were not submitted to the conference by either
chamber. The measure established a point of order that is intended to curtail the practice of “air-
dropping” earmark provisions, not first passed by either chamber, into appropriations acts at the
On January 18, 2007, the Senate adopted S. 1, ethics reform legislation. Title I of the act, referred
to separately as the Legislative Transparency and Accountability Act of 2007, included earmark
reform provisions requiring the prior identification of earmarks, and their sponsors, in all
spending and revenue legislation, and various other constraints on earmarking practices. Senator
Robert C. Byrd, the chairman of the Senate Appropriations Committee, announced on April 17
that the committee would follow a policy of requiring earmark disclosure for the FY2008
appropriations cycle, similar to the requirements set forth in S. 1.
On July 31, 2007, the House passed S. 1 with an amendment under the suspension of the rules
procedure, by a vote of 411-8. The Senate agreed to the House amendment, by a vote of 83-14, on
August 2, thus clearing the measure. President George W. Bush signed the bill into law on
September 14, as P.L. 110-81 (121 Stat. 735-776), the Honest Leadership and Open Government
Act of 2007. In its final form, P.L. 110-81 includes earmark reform provisions in Section 521
(Congressionally Directed Spending), which are added to the Standing Rules of the Senate as a
new Rule XLIV.
President George W. Bush challenged Congress on several occasions to curtail its use of
earmarks. In January 2008, he signed Executive Order 13457 (“Protecting American Taxpayers
from Government Spending on Wasteful Earmarks”), which directed agency officials to not spend
funds on the basis of non-statutory earmarks in congressional committee report language and
other sources. OMB maintains an online database of congressional earmarks. The House and
Senate continue to examine further rules changes and changes in practice with respect to
earmarking, including suggestions that a moratorium on their use be adopted temporarily.
Although an appropriation limits the amounts that can be spent, it also establishes the expectation
that the available funds will be used to carry out authorized activities. Therefore, when an agency
fails to use all or part of an appropriation, it deviates from the intentions of Congress. The
Impoundment Control Act of 1974 prescribes rules and procedures for instances in which
available funds are impounded.
An impoundment is an action or inaction by the President or a federal agency that delays or
withholds the obligation or expenditure of budget authority provided in law. The 1974
Impoundment Control Act divides impoundments into two categories and establishes distinct
procedures for each. A deferral delays the use of funds; a rescission is a presidential request that
Congress rescind (cancel) an appropriation or other form of budget authority. Deferral and
rescission are exclusive and comprehensive categories; an impoundment is either a rescission or a
deferral—it cannot be both or something else.
Although impoundments are defined broadly by the 1974 act, in practice they are limited to major
actions that affect the level or rate of expenditure. As a general practice, only deliberate
curtailments of expenditure are reported as impoundments; actions having other purposes that
incidently affect the rate of spending are not recorded as impoundments. For example, if an
agency were to delay the award of a contract because of a dispute with a vendor, the delay would
not be an impoundment; if the delay were for the purpose of reducing an expenditure, it would be
an impoundment. The line between routine administrative actions and impoundments is not clear
and controversy occasionally arises as to whether a particular action constitutes an impoundment.
To propose a rescission, the President must submit a message to Congress specifying the amount
to be rescinded, the accounts and programs involved, the estimated fiscal and program effects,
and the reasons for the rescission. Multiple rescissions can be grouped in a single message. After
the message has been submitted to it, Congress has 45 days of “continuous session” (usually a
larger number of calendar days) during which it can pass a rescission bill. Congress may rescind
all, part, or none of the amount proposed by the President.
If Congress does not approve a rescission in legislation by the expiration of this period, the
President must make the funds available for obligation and expenditure. If the President fails to
release funds at the expiration of the 45-day period for proposed rescissions, the comptroller
general may bring suit to compel their release. This has been a rare occurrence, however.
To defer funds, the President submits a message to Congress setting forth the amount, the affected
account and program, the reasons for the deferral, the estimated fiscal and program effects, and
the period of time during which the funds are to be deferred. The President may not propose a
deferral for a period of time beyond the end of the fiscal year, nor may he propose a deferral that
would cause the funds to lapse or otherwise prevent an agency from spending appropriated funds
prudently. In accounts where unobligated funds remain available beyond the fiscal year, the
President may defer the funds again in the next fiscal year.
At present, the President may defer only for the reasons set forth in the Antideficiency Act,
including to provide for contingencies, to achieve savings made possible by or through changes in
requirements or greater efficiency of operations, and as specifically provided by law. He may not
defer funds for policy reasons (for example, to curtail overall federal spending or because he is
opposed to a particular program).
The comptroller general reviews all proposed rescissions and deferrals and advises Congress of
their legality and possible budgetary and program effects. The comptroller general also notifies
Congress of any rescission or deferral not reported by the President and may reclassify an
improperly classified impoundment. In all cases, a notification to Congress by the comptroller
general has the same legal effect as an impoundment message of the President.
The 1974 Impoundment Control Act provides for special types of legislation—rescission bills and
deferral resolutions—for Congress to use in exercising its impoundment control powers.
However, pursuant to court decisions that held the legislative veto to be unconstitutional,
Congress may not use deferral resolutions to disapprove a deferral. Further, Congress has been
reluctant to use rescission bills regularly. Congress, instead, usually acts on impoundment matters
within the framework of the annual appropriations measures.
During the 104th Congress, the Line Item Veto Act (P.L. 104-130) was enacted as an amendment
to the 1974 Impoundment Control Act. The Supreme Court ruled the Line Item Veto Act
unconstitutional in June 1998.
The authority granted to the President under the Line Item Veto Act differed markedly from the
veto authority available to most chief executives at the state level. First, the President could not
veto individual parts of legislation submitted for his approval. Under normal constitutional
procedures, the President must approve or veto any measure in its entirety. His authority to use
the line-item veto came into play only after a measure had been signed into law. Second, this
authority applied not only to annual appropriations, but extended to new entitlement spending and
targeted tax benefits as well. The line-item veto authority was intended to be in effect for eight
years, from the beginning of 1997 through the end of 2004.
The Line Item Veto Act reversed the presumption underlying the process for the consideration of
rescissions under the 1974 Impoundment Control Act. Under the Line Item Veto Act, presidential
proposals would take effect unless overturned by legislative action. The act authorized the
President to identify at enactment individual items in legislation that he proposed not go into
effect. The identification was based not just upon the statutory language, but on the entire
legislative history and documentation. The President had to notify Congress promptly of his
proposals and provide supporting information. Congress had to respond within a limited period of
time by enacting a law if it wanted to disapprove the President’s proposals; otherwise, they would
take effect permanently.
President Clinton exercised the line-item veto authority several times during the 1997 session
before the act was declared unconstitutional.
Specialist in American National Government
The initial version of this report was coauthored in 1998 with Allen Schick, Consultant.