The president’s budget explained

Graphic showing steps in creating and approving U.S. government budget (State Dept./S. Gemeny Wilkinson)
(State Dept./S. Gemeny Wilkinson)

In the United States, the president gets the first word in proposing how much the country should invest in schools, roads, health care, research, security and other programs that the federal government funds. But it is Congress that makes many of the decisions about how much taxpayer money will be spent and on which programs.

It’s a process that begins with the president’s plan, presented each year to Congress by the first Monday in February. Here’s how the process is supposed to work: The president proposes a budget. The Congress considers and adopts a budget. The specifics of the congressional budget are then incorporated into a series of spending measures called “appropriation bills.” The U.S. government’s fiscal year begins October 1, so that work has to be completed by then.

A big chunk of the government spending — about 70 percent — goes to pay certain benefits, such as health care for seniors, known as Medicare, and benefits to retired people, called Social Security. Anyone who qualifies for these programs gets the benefits and taxpayers must pay for them.

The other 30 percent of the budget covers a wide range of programs, including those related to defense, space exploration, education, transportation, employment and social programs. Congress decides how much to spend. The level can be shifted higher or lower than the previous year for any given program.

In theory, the House and Senate pass 12 separate bills covering the different topic areas. Many decisions are made in a “conference committee” where differences between the House and Senate bills are worked out. The deals cut in that conference go back to each chamber for an up or down vote on the entire package. Once approved, that version of the budget is sent to the president for approval.

But wait …

In the last 20 years, that hasn’t happened often. Instead, Congress has lumped together all 12 bills into a huge “omnibus” bill or has taken a short-term approach called a “continuing resolution.” Continuing resolutions keep spending levels the same as the previous year.

“Budget decisions have gone unmade or made at the very last minute,” says Stan Collender, one of the nation’s top budget experts and executive vice president at the communications firm Qorvis MSLGROUP.

All the months of wrangling and last-minute brinksmanship are typically about a few controversial programs or policies. This year was no different. Congress in early September passed a continuing resolution that President Trump signed into law September 8. It will keep funding going until December 8.

The continuing resolution averted shutting down the federal government. If Congress and the president can’t agree on a budget, hundreds of thousands of nonessential federal employees are furloughed and national parks are closed. (Though the military and other essential workers still report to work.)

Collender says passing a budget is “maybe the most important policymaking process in the federal government because the stakes are so high. It’s also the most difficult.”

This article was written by freelance writer Tamara Lytle.