The Congressional Budget Process: A Quick Introduction

In my last post, I asked you to reach out to your congressional delegation and request they support an $8 billion National Science Foundation (NSF) appropriation for fiscal year 2018 funding. In this post, I am going to tell you a bit about how the annual budget process unfolds, or is supposed to unfold each year. In a post coming soon, I will tell you more about how this year’s process is unfolding.

The Congressional Budget Act of 1974 guides the process by which Congress decides how much money to spend each year, what to spend it on, and how to raise money to pay for that spending.

The President is to release his or her budget proposal on the first Monday in February although in inauguration years, a delay is expected. After this introduction, the budget works its way through each of the House and Senate, and the President’s budget is only a request to Congress; Congress is not required to adopt his or her recommendations. Congress passes twelve appropriations bills annually. The House and Senate Budget Committees, working separately, establish top-line numbers for spending, with input from other legislators, committee chairs, and party leadership. Once these top-line numbers are established, the House and Senate Appropriations Committees begin their work. They take the spending target determined by the Budget Committees and divide it between the twelve appropriations subcommittees (one for each of the twelve bills that are to be passed each year).

The one subcommittee — of the twelve — that funds the NSF is Commerce, Justice, Science, and Related Agencies (take a look at the House and Senate members, see if a member of your congressional delegation is one). This subcommittee’s jurisdiction includes other agencies such as NASA, NIST, NOAA, and OSTP, and also the Federal Prison Industries Incorporated and the Commission on Civil Rights, among other programs.

Finally, to give you an idea of what sort of investment the nation makes in science, let’s take a look at the FY2015 budget. The budget process just described addresses the piece of the pie on the left below, labelled “discretionary” (the 32% wedge). These programs are called “discretionary” because Congress must set funding levels for them each year through the appropriations process. In contrast, we have the “entitlement” or “mandatory” programs such as Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid (the 62% wedge).

Discretionary funds are categorized as “defense” or “non-defense.” In 2015, non-defense discretionary (NDD) spending totaled $585 billion, or 16% of federal spending (the other 16% of discretionary is defense related). Science, environment, and energy programs constituted 12% ($70 billion) of NDD spending in 2015. Roughly half of the spending in this category supports conservation and the management of natural resources, such as national parks, and other environmental programs, including those in the Environmental Protection Agency. One-quarter of the spending covers NASA’s space exploration and related scientific research. The remaining spending supports the NSF and the Department of Energy, and water resources infrastructure.

I am sure you have been reading about President Trump’s proposed cuts to many NDD programs; I look forward to grappling with this year’s process in a soon-to-come post!

About Karen Saxe

Karen Saxe is Director of the AMS Office of Government Relations which works to connect the mathematics community with Washington decision-makers who affect mathematics research and education. Over many years she has contributed much time to the AMS, MAA, and AWM, including service as vice president of the MAA and in policy and advocacy work with all three. She was the 2013-2014 AMS Congressional Fellow, working for Senator Al Franken on education issues, with focus on higher education and STEM education. In Minnesota she has served on the Citizens Redistricting Commission following the 2010 census and serves on the Common Cause Minnesota Redistricting Leadership Circle. She has three children and, when not at work especially enjoys being with them and reading, hiking and sharing good food and wine and beer with family and friends.
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