The WasteWatcher: The Staff Blog of Citizens Against Government Waste

Congressional Appropriations 101

The WasteWatcher is the staff blog of Citizens Against Government Waste (CAGW) and the Council for Citizens Against Government Waste (CCAGW). For questions, contact blog@cagw.org.


As schools across the country open for another year, students will learn about the division of powers in the federal government.  Teachers will describe the role of Congress and the power of the purse.  They will likely teach what should happen during the budget and appropriations process.

But discerning students should instead ask how the process has been working rather than how it should work, since the institution’s track record in punctually approving the 12 appropriations bills that fund the federal government has been downright atrocious in recent years.  In two cases, Congress has failed to pass the bills at all, instead funding the government via a continuing resolution (CR), which implements funding levels from the prior year.  Perhaps the current batch of members of Congress skipped their U.S. Government and Civics course. 

The following is a summary of the previous six fiscal years (FY):

  • FY 2011: no appropriations bills; funding resolved via full-year CR.
  • FY 2012: consolidated appropriations package for the entire FY signed into law on December 23, 2011, nearly three months late.
  • FY 2013: no appropriations bills; funding via full-year CR.
  • FY 2014: consolidated appropriations package signed into law on January 17, 2014, more than three months late.
  • FY 2015: consolidated appropriations package funding 11 of 12 appropriations bills signed into law on December 16, 2014, more than two months late; Homeland Security appropriations bill signed into law on March 4, 2015, more than six months late.
  • FY 2016: stopgap funding measure seems assured; full-year CR likely. 

The lesson available here is that members of Congress have not been very good at the most basic aspect of their job – passing the 12 annual appropriations bills.  Congress seems likely to receive an “F” for the third time in the previous six years.

The prospect of a short-term funding measure to keep the government open when FY 2015 closes on September 30 is now a foregone conclusion.  While the House has been only slightly behind schedule – all 12 appropriations bills have cleared committee, and six have been passed – the Senate lags far behind.  Half of the bills have yet to gain committee approval, and the upper chamber has yet to pass a single appropriations bill.  Because of congressional inaction over the summer, members are said to already be considering a full-year CR.

Several factors have contributed to Congress’ reticence to take up the spending bills this year, including presidential politics, and a disagreement with the Obama administration over whether and where to exceed the budget caps implemented in the 2011 Budget Control Act.  Many Republicans favor raising the caps for the Department of Defense while maintaining them elsewhere, whereas the Obama administration has threatened to veto any bill that raises the defense caps without corresponding increases in nondefense spending.

However, perhaps members of Congress should look inward to assign blame, as the legislative body has been dysfunctional for quite some time.  With more budget brinksmanship and shutdown threats on the horizon, it appears as though Congress will again fail to accomplish its principal role, and that should be the real lesson to students across the country.

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