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CRS — Overview of the Authorization Appropriations Process

December 5, 2012

Overview of the Authorization Appropriations Process (PDF)

Source: Congressional Research Service (via U.S. State Department Foreign Press Center)

A 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 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, program, or activity as well as authorize the subsequent enactment of appropriations; and (2) enactment of appropriations to provide funds for the authorized agency, program, or activity.

The authorizing and appropriating tasks in this two-step process are largely 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 below, 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 (or mandatory) spending, currently constitutes about 55% 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 existing authorizing statute.

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