Overview of the Authorization-Appropriations Process
Prepared for Members and Committees of Congress
primary avenue for exercising Congress’s power of the purse is the authorization and
appropriation of federal spending to carry out government activities. While the power
over appropriations is granted to Congress by the U.S. Constitution, the authorization-A
appropriation process is derived from House and Senate rules. The formal process consists of two
sequential steps: (1) enactment of an authorization measure that may create or continue an agency
or program as well as authorize the subsequent enactment of appropriations; and (2) enactment of
appropriations to provide funds for the authorized agency or program. For more information on
the budget process, see the CRS Guides to Congressional Processes at http://www.crs.gov/
The authorizing and appropriating duties in this two-step process are carried out by a division of
labor within the committee system. Legislative committees, such as the House Committee on
Armed Services and the Senate Committee on Commerce, Science, and Transportation, are
responsible for authorizing legislation related to the agencies and programs under their
jurisdiction; most standing committees have authorizing responsibilities. The Appropriations
Committees of the House and Senate have jurisdiction over appropriations measures. As
discussed belowbelow, House and Senate rules generally prohibit the encroachment of these
committee responsibilities by the authorizers and appropriators.
Agencies and programs funded through the annual appropriations process, referred to as
discretionary spending, generally follow this two-step process. Not all federal agencies and
programs, however, are funded through this authorization-appropriations process. Funding for
some agencies and programs is provided by the authorizing legislation, bypassing this two-step
process. Such spending, referred to as direct spending, currently constitutes about two-thirds of
all federal spending. Some direct spending, mostly entitlement programs, is funded by permanent
appropriations in the authorizing law. Other direct spending (referred to as appropriated
entitlements), such as Medicaid, is funded in appropriations acts, but the amount appropriated is
controlled by the authorizing legislation.
An authorizing measure can establish, continue, or modify an agency or program for a fixed or
indefinite period of time. It also may set forth the duties and functions of an agency or program,
its organizational structure, and the responsibilities of agency or program officials.
Authorizing legislation also authorizes the enactment of appropriations for an agency or program.
The amount authorized to be appropriated may be specified for each fiscal year or may be
indefinite (providing “such sums as may be necessary”). The authorization of appropriations is
intended to provide guidance regarding the appropriate amount of funds to carry out the
authorized activities of an agency.
An appropriations measure provides budget authority to an agency for specified purposes. Budget
authority allows federal agencies to incur obligations and authorizes payments to be made out of
the Treasury. Discretionary agencies and programs, and appropriated entitlement programs, are
funded each year in appropriations acts.
The subcommittees of the Appropriations Committees of the House and Senate are each
responsible for one of the regular appropriations acts. The regular appropriations acts provide
budget authority for the next fiscal year, beginning October 1. Congress usually adopts one or
more supplemental appropriations acts to provide additional funding for unexpected needs while
the fiscal year is in progress. If the regular appropriation acts are not completed by October 1,
then Congress must adopt a continuing appropriations act, commonly referred to as a continuing
resolution, providing stop-gap funding. In some years, instead of adopting the regular
appropriation measures individually, Congress may include several in an omnibus appropriations
measure, or a continuing appropriations bill providing funding for the full fiscal year.
The separation between the two steps of the authorization-appropriations process is enforced
through points of order provided by rules of the House and Senate. First, the rules prohibit
appropriations for unauthorized agencies and programs; an appropriation in excess of an
authorized amount is considered an unauthorized appropriation. Second, the rules prohibit the
inclusion of legislative language in appropriations measures. Third, the House, but not the Senate,
prohibits appropriations in authorizing legislation.
While the rules encourage the integrity of the process, a point of order must be raised to enforce
the rules. Also, the rules may be waived by suspension of the rules, by unanimous consent, or, in
the House, by a special rule. If unauthorized appropriations are enacted into law through
circumvention of House and Senate rules, in most cases the agency may spend the entire amount.
Bill Heniff Jr.
Analyst on the Congress and Legislative Process