INSIDE SCOOP: What the heck is this ‘appropriations’ process?

| 7/11/2008

Every year, legislation is put together that funds federal government operations for the upcoming fiscal year – and it’s been a long time since that process was completed before the new fiscal year started.

The federal government’s fiscal year runs from Oct. 1 to Sept. 30 each year. Funding for the fiscal year is approved in several different pieces of appropriations legislation.

The House of Representatives and the Senate must both approve each of the several pieces of legislation, agree on final versions in conference committee to send to the president, and the president must sign the legislation for the funding to continue.

The last time all of the appropriations bills were completely done and signed before Oct. 1 was in 1994. The 2008 transportation appropriations was signed on Dec. 26, 2007, when all appropriations bills were rolled in together and signed as one package.

In 2007, none of the 12 measures were passed in both chambers, agreed upon in conference committee and signed by the president before the start of the 2008 fiscal year. The last time none of the 12 measures made it all the way through the process before Oct. 1 was six years ago.

The funding legislation is broken down into 12 areas. They are:

  • Agriculture;
  • Commerce/justice/science;
  • Defense;
  • Energy and water;
  • Financial services;
  • Homeland security;
  • Interior and environment;
  • Labor/health and human services/education;
  • Legislative branch;
  • Military/veterans;
  • State/foreign operations; and
  • Transportation/housing and urban development.

Because it seems rather commonplace to miss the Oct. 1 fiscal year deadline, at least in part, many may assume that it really doesn’t mean much if the bills aren’t done.

Many times, the government puts a quick fix into place while the appropriations bills are being hashed out. That’s what happened this past year.

The government ran on continuing resolutions designed to keep money flowing to the agencies while the funding legislation is hammered out and signed by the president.

But it doesn’t always go that way if appropriations aren’t passed and signed into law in a somewhat timely manner.

One of the best examples of what can go on, or wrong, during this process was in 1995 and 1996. The federal government was partially shut down twice because of disagreements between Republican members of Congress and President Bill Clinton, a Democrat, on how much should be appropriated.

The first partial shutdown started on Nov. 13, 1995. Thousands of government employees were “furloughed” – government-speak for laid off – and several federal services slowed down.

At first, it was mainly parks services and such that shut down – leaving hunters looking for other places to hunt. As the shutdown progressed, various federal benefit programs struggled. People applying for mortgages found their paperwork stalled. Federal fuel subsidies were threatened. And federal employees who were essentially laid off weren’t being paid.

Eventually the government restarted on Nov. 21. It was short-lived when a second partial shutdown started on Dec. 16 – just nine days before Christmas.

Once again, thousands of federal employees were left without paychecks. Parks and other related facilities shut down again. But, the impact of the second shutdown was much more far-reaching. Veteran benefits to 3.3 million vets were delayed. Some federal prisoners were released while local, county and state jails and prisons took up the slack.

In these two shutdowns, some critical jobs remained staffed. Federal employees working as air-traffic controllers or in security roles either on the boarders or in the military stayed on the job.

The second shutdown ended Jan. 6, 1996.

All the time many federal employees went without paychecks, vets wondered if they were going to get their benefits, and other federal employees – like air traffic controllers – wondered if they would be laid off next, Congress and President Clinton negotiated back and forth over differences of opinion on funding levels.

The appropriations process for the 2009 fiscal year is in what some could consider to be its infancy – since Congress and the president have until Oct. 1 before continuing resolutions are needed to keep the government running.

But, as with any appropriations legislation, at any point in the process there is opportunity to include or exclude funding for any project or department.

That’s what the amendment by Sen. Byron Dorgan, D-ND, is designed to do if passed into law. Dorgan’s amendment, co-sponsored by Sen. Arlen Specter, R-PA, would cut off funding to the cross-border program with Mexico.

To read more about the Dorgan-Specter amendment, click here.

– By Jami Jones, senior editor