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Budget Resolutions and Authorizing Legislation

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I have previously written about the budget process and appropriations.  Now, I am turning to authorization legislation. In theory, process for funding the government is an orderly one in which each year the President proposes a budget; the U.S. Congress passes appropriations legislation; the enrolled bills are sent to the President for signing; and voila, government agencies and programs are funded.  However, in practice the funding process is more complicated; and the exigencies of the real world frequently mean the process, as it is laid out, is not followed.  For example, existing provisions in the relevant legislation call for the passage of an annual budget resolution before Congress debates and passes appropriation legislation. And yes, there is yet another step in the process:  authorizing legislation should be passed before Congress proceeds to consider the annual appropriation bills.

Although this is a complex process, the Law Library Reading Room staff tries to make it more accessible by providing patrons with a brief overview of the laws that pertain to the various steps involved in funding the government.  As such, I thought it would be useful to explore authorizing legislation in this post.

Two years ago, I wrote about the President’s Budget which is submitted to Congress in early February each year.  After the president’s budget is submitted, Congress proceeds to pass  a budget resolution.  This action is dictated by the Congressional Budget and Impoundment Control Act of 1974, Pub.L. 93-344 which provides for the passage of a concurrent budget resolution.  This provision, currently codified in the United States Code, Title 2, chapter 17a, includes a declaration of purpose stating that “Congress declares that it is essential — (1) to assure effective congressional control over the budgetary process; (2) to provide for the congressional determination each year of the appropriate level of Federal revenues and expenditures; … and (4) to establish national budget priorities.”   It also provides that “on or before April 15 of each year, the Congress shall complete action on a concurrent resolution on the budget for the fiscal year.  This concurrent budget resolution is intended to set spending and deficit limits for the government in the upcoming fiscal year and provide an outline for the budget over the next four years.  The concurrent budget resolution may also include ‘reconciliation instructions.”  These instructions direct congressional committees to change existing laws as necessary to bring spending or debt limits into conformity with the budget resolutions.  These changes could then be legislated in a reconciliation bill:

If the changes involve two committees–program changes by House Education and Labor and Senate Labor and Human Resources committees and tax changes by the House Ways and Means and Senate Finance committees for example–those committees would submit recommendations to the Budget committees.  The budget committees would then combine the recommendations … and send them to the floor as a reconciliation bill …  Reconciliation bills are required to project spending, revenues and deficits for five years. (Guide to Congress, pp. 198-199)

March 15. Robert Fechner, Director of the Civilian Conservation Corps, today recommended to the Senate Unemployment and Relief Committee that the CCC be made a permanent establishment. The present CCC authorization will expire July 1, 1940. Harris & Ewing, photographer, March 15, 1938. Source: Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division,

Another step in the annual appropriation process is the passage of authorizing legislation.  Authorizing legislation establishes, continues, and sets the scope of government programs.   While authorizing legislation does not appropriate money for these programs, it can set limits on program spending.  According to The Book on Congress: Process, Procedure, and Structure, in 1835 the Senate refused to pass an unauthorized appropriation for “extraordinary military and naval purposes.”   After a second refusal by the Senate to pass an unauthorized appropriation, the House Committee on Rules proposed that “No appropriation shall be reported in any such general appropriation bills or be in order as an amendment thereto, for any expenditure not previously authorized by law.”  This rule was adopted in 1837 and subsequently amended.  The current version of this rule can be found in House Rule XXI, clause 2(a).  The same requirement also appears in the Senate Rule XVI.

Note:  An authorization may set a specific amount of funds that may be appropriated for a government program or it may simply authorize “such sums as may be necessary.”  Authorizing legislation comes under the jurisdiction of the legislative committees which have oversight responsibility for programs and executive branch departments, rather than the Congressional appropriation committees.  For example, H.R. 1815 which became Pub.L. 109-163, the National Defense Authorization Law for Fiscal Year 2006, was under the jurisdiction of the House and Senate Committees on Armed Services,while the S.1281, National Aeronautics and Space Administration Authorization Act of 2005, Pub. L. 109-155, was taken up by the Senate Committee on Commerce, Science and Transportation.

Next, having completed the authorization processes, Congress then turns to the actual appropriation of funds for the coming fiscal year.  However although House and Senate Rules generally prohibit appropriations which are not already authorized by law, exceptions can be made through various parliamentary procedures.

This is a simplified description of the steps involved in the annual authorization/appropriation process and one that I hope you will find useful.  There are related processes that come together in terms of the overall budget which I hope to cover in subsequent posts. Until then, stay tuned!


  1. It is also interesting that originally, since its establishment in 1921 GAO was primarily checking Government’s expenditure’s adequacy and legality. Only after WWII, it passed some these functions to the executive branch.

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