Considered Forthwith: The Appropriations Committees

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This essay will turn Orange Sunday around 8 p.m. Eastern. It is also posted on my own blog.

Welcome to the seventh installment of “Considered Forthwith.”

This weekly series looks at the various committees in the House and the Senate. Committees are the workshops of our democracy. This is where bills are considered, revised, and occasionally advance for consideration by the House and Senate. Most committees also have the authority to exercise oversight of related executive branch agencies. If you want to read previous dairies in the series, search using the “forthwith” tag. I welcome criticisms and corrections in the comments.

This week I will look at the House and Senate committees on Appropriations. With the passage of the budget resolution by the House and Senate (PDF), the Appropriations committees are starting their work. I have heard from Hill staffers that many people worked late last week to review the appropriations for fiscal year 2010.

Since the House and Senate Committees do the exact same thing, this week I will look at both committees. These are large committees. Since the main function of Congress has become spending money, a seat on the Appropriations Committee is one of the most desirable assignments. Such an assignment lets members go back to their districts and brag about their power in Washington. This, in turn, increases reelection prospects.

Here’s the members of the House Appropriations Committee.

Democrats: David R. Obey, Wisconsin, Chairman; John P. Murtha, Pennsylvania; Norman D. Dicks, Washington; Alan B. Mollohan, West Virginia; Marcy Kaptur, Ohio; Peter J. Visclosky, Indiana; Nita M. Lowey, New York; José E. Serrano, New York; Rosa L. DeLauro, Connecticut; James P. Moran, Virginia; John W. Olver, Massachusetts; Ed Pastor, Arizona; David E. Price, North Carolina; Chet Edwards, Texas; Patrick J. Kennedy, Rhode Island; Maurice D. Hinchey, New York; Lucille Roybal-Allard, California; Sam Farr, California; Jesse L. Jackson, Jr., Illinois; Carolyn C. Kilpatrick, Michigan; Allen Boyd, Florida; Chaka Fattah, Pennsylvania; Steven R. Rothman, New Jersey; Sanford D. Bishop Jr., Georgia; Marion Berry, Arkansas; Barbara Lee, California; Adam Schiff, California; Michael Honda, California; Betty McCollum, Minnesota; Steve Israel, New York; Tim Ryan, Ohio; C.A “Dutch” Ruppersberger, Maryland; Ben Chandler, Kentucky; Debbie Wasserman Schultz, Florida; Ciro Rodriguez, Texas; Lincoln Davis, Tennessee; John T. Salazar, Colorado

Republicans: Jerry Lewis, California, Ranking Member; C.W. Bill Young, Florida; Harold Rogers, Kentucky; Frank R. Wolf, Virginia; Jack Kingston, Georgia; Rodney P. Frelinghuysen, New Jersey; Todd Tiahrt, Kansas; Zach Wamp, Tennessee; Tom Latham, Iowa; Robert B.Aderholt, Alabama; Jo Ann Emerson, Missouri; Kay Granger, Texas; Michael K. Simpson, Idaho; John Abney Culberson, Texas; Mark Steven Kirk, Illinois; Ander Crenshaw, Florida; Dennis R. Rehberg, Montana; John R. Carter, Texas; Rodney Alexander, Louisiana; Ken Calvert, California; Jo Bonner, Alabama; Steven C. LaTourette, Ohio; Tom Cole, Oklahoma

Notes: No, not that John Oliver nor that Jerry Lewis.

Here’s the Senate Appropriations Committee:

Democrats: Daniel Inouye, Hawaii, Chairman; Robert Byrd, West Virginia

Patrick Leahy, Vermont; Tom Harkin, Iowa; Barbara Mikulski, Maryland; Herb Kohl, Wisconsin; Patty Murray, Washington; Byron Dorgan, North Dakota

Dianne Feinstein, California; Richard Durbin, Illinois; Tim Johnson, South Dakota; Mary Landrieu, Louisiana; Jack Reed, Rhode Island; Frank Lautenberg, New Jersey; Ben Nelson, Nebraska; Mark Pryor, Arkansas; Jon Tester, Montana; Arlen Specter, Pennsylvania

Republicans: Thad Cochran, Mississippi, Ranking Member; Kit Bond, Missouri; Mitch McConnell, Kentucky; Richard Shelby, Alabama; Judd Gregg, New Hampshire; Robert Bennett, Utah; Kay Bailey Hutchison, Texas; Sam Brownback, Kansas; Lamar Alexander, Tennessee; Susan Collins, Maine; George Voinovich, Ohio; Lisa Murkowski, Alaska

Note: notice that Arlen Specter is listed last among the Democrats. This reflects his lost of seniority after switching parties.  

Before the appropriations process

This is an opportune time to discuss the process of appropriating money. (Admittedly, I should have looked at the Budget Committees by this point since they are key players in the process as well.) As you read this, keep in mind the key date of October 1. That is the start of the fiscal year and the official deadline for the appropriations bills to pass. FY 2010 starts on Oct. 1, 2009.

Before the appropriators start their work, the budget process for the next fiscal year has been rolling for almost a year. During the summer of 2008, the Executive Branch agencies were working on budget projections for FY 2010 (really). During the fall and early winter, the president and the Office of Management and Budget (OMB) negotiated a final President’s budget. This year, the process was a little more complicated as the outgoing and incoming competed to get their priorities included in the budget. Of course, the Obama Administration got the better of the deal since they had the final say on the budget proposal.

Next the House and Senate budget committees received the president’s budget. In brief, their role is to develop a budget resolution, which is a statement of Congress’ spending priorities for the year. The resolutions set limits on discretionary spending and revenue targets. The resolutions become rules of the chamber and it is difficult, but not impossible, to authorize expenditures exceeding those limits. The resolutions do not carry the force of law since they are not sent to the president for a signature. Additionally, the House and Senate resolutions are not always identical, which can cause problems later in the process. Specifically, the appropriations bills could be radically different by the time they get to conference committee.

This is an extremely simplistic version of the process to this point. A future diary will look more closely at the Budget Committees and I might take a break from the committees to look more closely at OMB.

Cutting the Budget Pie

After the chambers pass the budget resolutions, the Appropriations Committees begin their work. This year, the appropriators have about $3.5 trillion to spend. The full committee divides the money into broad spending areas. (As an aside: federal spending falls into one of 20 different “functions.” The full list is here.)

After that, the subcommittees take over.

Both appropriations committees have 12 subcommittees and every agency within the federal government receives money from one or more appropriations subcommittees in each house. Obviously, some subcommittees appropriate money to more than one functions. Additionally, some agencies receive money under more than one function. For example, the Department of Energy gets Function 270 money for “energy” and Function 250 for “General Science, Space and Technology.”

During this stage, the subcommittees take testimony from agency officials, activists, lobbyists and even other members as they decide how much or how little various agencies will receive for the year. These numbers do not come out of thin air. They are guided by the president’s budget, agency requests, and the budget resolution.

Behind the scenes, staffers in every members’ office work overtime to review appropriations proposals, particularly the ones in the Senators’ states or the Representatives’ districts. The members have a better handle on necessary spending priorities locally and their testimony and informal communications with subcommittee members can save or kill individual programs.

The subcommittees produce 13 spending bills (though this number can change from year to year) which must be approved by the subcommittee. The bills then go to the full committee for possible further revision and a final committee vote. They then go to the full chamber for approval. On the House side, they go to the Rules Committee for a rule first.  

Twelve of the 13 spending bills correspond directly to the subcommittee that writes them. The final bill is a separate bill for operating the District of Columbia government.

Discretionary vs. Non-discretionary spending

This is an important distinction. A little more than half of the federal government’s budget is “non-discretionary spending.” That represents money that the government must spend. Social Security, Medicare, Medicaid and the other mandatory programs are entitlements. If you qualify for these programs and ask for the money, you get it.

Budget breakdown

Graphic source

And check out that outlay for interest. That is just interest on the national debt and does not touch the principal.

So the subcommittees really have less than half of the total budget to play with. Of that amount, the discretionary spending, defense expenditures amount to more than half of the total.  

budget breakdown full

Graphic source

It’s a Wiki, but it sources the Congressional Budget Office, so I trust it.

After the bills get out of the committees, they go through the standard Floor procedures for final approval.


I ranted about Earmarks earlier this year. In light of recent rule changes as well as my own research, I have changed my position on the issue slightly. This will probably be a special topic in this series.

Earmarks account for about one percent of the federal budget. However, they open the door to rampant corruption. This is Rep. John Murtha’s problem with the now defunct PMA Group. Murtha is under investigation for allegedly taking campaign contributions from PMA and its clients and then securing earmarks for those clients. Murtha contends that the earmarks benefit his district and he would have made those earmarks regardless.

Earmarks are extra appropriations not included in the President’s Budget and/or considered in the budget resolution. They are pet projects requested by individual members, almost always benefiting their districts. (Indeed, an earmark benefiting a different district will raise some eyebrows.) Since almost every member requests earmarks, they are typically passed. No member wants to risk infuriating another member by opposing opposing his/her earmarks. The iron law of reciprocity says that the opposition will be repaid in kind.  

One reform is that members must report all of their earmark requests. Here is a list of links to Senators’ earmark requests (and John McCain apparently has none).

Supplemental Spending

Remember when George W. Bush started his invasion and occupation of Iraq? We were going to wage a war on the cheap and pay for it all with oil revenues.

From the Jan. 10, 2003 Common Dreams article:

The Congressional Budget Office estimates that the cost of an occupation would range from $12 billion to $48 billion a year, and officials believe an occupation could last 1 1/2 years or more.

Yeah, not so much.

Anyway, the war has been funded through supplemental funding and war funding is not one of those things that it is wise to cut off. When the federal government is faced with an unforeseen expense, a supplemental funding bill is required to cover those costs. This was one of those little tricks the Bush Administration used to make the budget look better than it really was. This is the equivalent of buying a mansion and not budgeting for the mortgage payments.

Regardless, the appropriations committees have jurisdiction over supplemental funding as well as the regular spending bills. oh, and Congress is STILL funding the wars through supplemental bills (PDF Link).

President Obama’s budget cuts

On May 7, President Obama announced a plan to slash $17 billion in spending from the federal budget. Most of the cuts will be to programs that officials have concluded are not effective and military projects that are obsolete. The cuts affect 121 programs that benefit nearly every state.

In terms of the actual budget process, this is little more than a suggestion. The President has identified some programs that could be cut and is asking the appropriators to save some money. The total price tag of $17 billion is a lot of money, but it is a drop in the bucket compared to the $3.5 trillion in proposed spending.

Politically, this will be a difficult fight. Those programs, whether effective or not, help to employ a lot of people in a lot of Congressional Districts. Senators and Representatives will have a difficult time cutting programs that benefit their districts. However, the President always has the option to veto a final budget including this spending. For better or worse, the president does not have the power to issue a line item veto, so he cannot approve the budget, but veto the offending programs.

The Traditional Media might forget about this proposal, but it will create some interesting subcommittee fights.

Continuing resolutions

Congress moves slowly, especially when they cannot agree on something. In recent years, the budget has been the central focus of political fights. This is nothing new. In the mid 1990s, the government twice shutdown after President Bill Clinton and Congressional Republicans led by Newt Gingrich (the original lizard person) failed to compromise on a budget by the Oct. 1 deadline. There are two resolutions:

Government shutdown: This is exactly what happened in the 1990s. For a brief time, the government shutdown and non-essential employees were temporarily laid off. This forced action, and it is generally accepted that Clinton came out looking better than Gingrich (who was blamed for forcing the shutdown to further his own political ends).

Continuing resolutions
: In order to avoid a potentially damaging and politically embarrassing government shutdowns, Congress has often resorted to using the continuing resolution. These resolutions fund the government at current levels if the relevant budget bill has not yet been passed. In fact, part of the government was funded by continuing resolution between Oct. 1, 2008 and March 2009 when President Obama finally signed the FY 2009 budget.

The subcommittees

This entry is already long enough without detailing all of the committees. The House subcommittees are listed on the left of the homepage. The Senate subcommittees are listed here. Click on links for jurisdictions to see which agencies are overseen by the various subcommittees.

If you are interested in a specific agency, leave a comment and I will dig up the relevant subcommittee. If you are interested in lobbying for more funding for an agency or program, contact the subcommittee or the chair of that subcommittee.

One House Subcommittee of note is the new House Appropriations Select Intelligence Oversight Panel. This subcommittee was created during the 110th Congress (the last session). The panel was recommended by the 9/11 Commission and oversees intelligence funding, including spending that is classified, also known as the Black Budget. While these hearings are largely closed, there is at least some oversight of these budgets and members now have the ability to stop questionable intelligence activities by defunding them.

The 13 member panel includes the chair and ranking member of the full committee and the defense subcommittee. In addition, there are three members who are members of the Intelligence Committee who are not members of the Appropriations Committee.  More information is available at the Wiki entry. There is no equivalent committee in the Senate.

I have nothing in mind for next week. If there are any committees you have an interest in reading about, leave a comment and I will try to accommodate.  

1 comment

  1. your appropriations requests. Me? I could use a few bucks for a pizza.

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