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House and Senate Move Forward on Appropriations

May 16, 2016 | Budget Process

April 15 is the annual statutory deadline for passing a conferenced budget resolution though the House and Senate, which is intended to formally kick off the appropriations process. This year's deadline has already passed without a budget resolution coming from either chamber, but the appropriations season is still moving forward. How does the appropriations process move forward without a budget?

The budget resolution imposes discipline on the appropriations process by providing a topline number for discretionary appropriations known as a 302(a) allocation, which refers to that particular provision in the Congressional Budget Act of 1974 and is the total amount that the Appropriations Committees can spend. Once the 302(a) allocation is set through the budget resolution, the Appropriations Committees divide the topline amount among each of the twelve appropriations subcommittees using 302(b) allocations.

Without a budget resolution, there is no 302(a) allocation setting the total amount for the Appropriations Committees to spend, and in turn means the Appropriations Committees cannot establish 302(b) allocations to divide the topline spending among their twelve subcommittees. There is also no enforcement mechanism for violating these allocations, however there is a point of order against appropriations that exceed the statutory discretionary spending caps, applied to the appropriations bill that caused the excess (which is typically the last appropriations bill considered by the House).

Learn more about appropriations with our explainer Appropriations 101.

Although the Budget Act prohibits considering tax or spending legislation before adopting a budget resolution, there are ways around it. House rules allow that chamber to begin considering appropriations bills after May 15 without a budget resolution. This year, the House may consider a "joint resolution" that combines the budget resolution reported by the House Budget Committee with legislative changes to achieve savings in mandatory programs, but unlike the budget resolution, it would not take effect until signed by the President. Therefore even if the House does approve a joint resolution that includes the text of the House Budget, it won’t produce a 302(a) allocation for the House.

In absence of 302(a) allocations, the House Appropriations Committee can informally set limits on its subcommittees in order to begin considering the twelve appropriations bills while ensuring the bills do not exceed the discretionary spending limits under current law. In addition, a provision in the House rules prohibits floor amendments that increase spending in the individual appropriations bills above the level reported by the Appropriations Committee.

In the Senate, the prohibition against considering spending bills before a budget resolution can be waived with 60 votes. In recent years, legislation has acted in place of a budget resolution and allows a budget to be "deemed" to have been passed for enforcement purposes. Budget Committee Chairman Enzi (R-WY) filed the 302(a) allocation earlier this month with the authority given him by the Bipartisan Budget Act of 2015. That is the same type authority provided in the Budget Control Act of 2011 that former Chairman Kent Conrad (D-ND) used in lieu of a budget in Fiscal Years 2012 and 2013.

In summary, the appropriations process is going forward with procedures that enforce some discipline on spending totals even without a budget resolution that sets 302(a) allocations or the House Appropriations Committee formally adopting 302(b) allocations.

Stay up to date on the appropriations process with our continually updated blog Appropriations Watch: FY 2017.

Learn more about appropriations with our explainer Appropriations 101.