March 21st, 2012 by

Yesterday marked the first day of spring, a time of new life and new beginnings. In D.C., spring means the city comes back to life. I’ve witnessed it for the past two years, and it happens like clockwork. The warm weather arrives, and people become more pleasant (it’s true) and start spending more time outside. And when the cherry blossoms start to bloom, D.C. evolves into a tourist-opia.

Cherry blossoms outside the Capitol. Credit: Kyle Taylor/Flickr

But there’s another reason why spring is a busy time in D.C. You won’t see it at a museum or on the National Mall. It’s happening in the halls of Congress; it’s the appropriations process. And it’s important because its results have an impact on everyone. Let’s start off with a little Appropriations 101:

  • Step 1: Budget Request – The President submits a budget request to Congress in February. This request includes figures for federal spending in the next fiscal year, which begins October 1st and ends September 30th.
  • Step 2: Hearings – Congressional committees hold several meetings, known as hearings, to discuss the proposed budget. Outside experts and specialists are often brought into these hearings to testify — or provide their opinions and insight — on specific budget areas. American Forests has given testimony in the past and will be providing testimony on the fiscal year 2013 budget. This is also the time when advocacy groups meet with Congressional staffers. American Forests has participated in several meetings on the Hill with groups like the Sustainable Urban Forests Coalition and the Rural Voices for Conservation Coalition.
  • Step 3: Budget Resolutions – The House and Senate Budget Committees draft budget resolutions. Information gathered from the hearings helps inform these documents, which serve as a blueprint for the appropriations bills.
  • Step 4: Authorization and Appropriation –  Actually, it’s two steps. Each House and Senate Committee (excluding the Appropriations Committees) has the power to establish, continue or modify an agency or program under their jurisdiction, and give the okay to continue onto the appropriations process. The House and Senate Appropriations Committees are then able to assign a final funding amount for the authorized agency or program, such as the USDA Forest Service.
  • Step 5: Final Report and Floor Votes – Differences between the House and Senate versions of the budget are reconciled in a final report, which is then sent for a full Congress vote. If the report passes in both chambers of Congress, it’s sent to the president to sign. And once it’s signed, it becomes law.

Now, this might seem like a long and complicated process because it is, but final appropriations bills are important because they determine about a third of government spending. The other two thirds is mandatory spending, which is enacted by law, but not dependent on an annual appropriations bill. Considering how many programs the government funds, it’s very important to have more than one step in the appropriations review process before the bill becomes law. It’s easy to see the changes happening outside in the springtime, but remember, there are a lot of changes going on inside Congress, too.