Understanding Congress' Appropriations Process

February 20, 2020, Department, by Kyle Simpson

2020 March Advocacy Understanding Congress Appropriations Process 410

The Congressional appropriations process certainly seems overwhelming, but it doesn’t need to be. The NRPA public policy team is here to help ensure that you are up-to-date on the appropriations process and have the tools you need to get involved and be successful in influencing the process.

Each year, Congress must pass appropriations bills that lay out how much money each federal agency — and in a lot of cases, each program — can spend for the upcoming fiscal year. These bills must be passed by the House of Representatives and the Senate and signed by the president. The appropriations process follows a set timeline, but sometimes these deadlines slip. Here’s a breakdown of the appropriations process timeline in a typical year.

In early February, the president of the United States must submit a budget to Congress. This is the administration’s suggestion as to how much each agency and program should receive from Congress. While this shows the administration’s priorities, Congress almost always ignores large portions of the president’s suggested budget. This is where the public gets to first weigh in on the appropriations process by speaking about the importance of the programs they care about.

During Spring, Congressional appropriators (members of Congress who sit on the House and Senate Appropriations Committees) and their staff begin the process of writing the appropriations bills. They consider the president’s budget requests and the priorities of the party that controls that chamber, and they begin assigning funding levels to agencies and their programs. This is an important time to contact your member of Congress. NRPA’s public policy team can provide talking points and sample letters that you can send to your member of Congress to ask them to support important P&R funding.

In May and June, Congress publicly debates and begins to vote on its appropriations bills. There are 12 bills that each chamber is supposed to pass each year.

By summer, Congress continues to work to pass its appropriations bills and find agreement with the other chamber. In August, Congress takes a break. This is a great time to invite your members of Congress to one of your events to show them the importance of funding for parks and recreation.

While the Office of Management and Budget works on the next year’s funding almost year-round, the process really picks up in the fall as the administration begins preparing the details of the president’s budget.

September 30 is the end of the current fiscal year. By midnight on September 30, Congress needs to either agree to identical appropriations bills on each side and have them signed by the president or pass a continuing resolution (CR). These CRs are the legislative equivalent of “kicking the can down the road.” They provide level funding for a short period of time while Congress attempts to finish its appropriations work. In recent years, Congress has relied on a CR in almost every instance, and I anticipate this year will be no exception.

During October, November and December (and sometimes, January and February of the next year), Congress works to come to an agreement, and the president — hopefully — signs the appropriations bills. While the intention is to pass all 12 bills individually, members of Congress usually bend on this at this point in the fiscal year. The 12 bills are usually packaged in larger bills that are, sometimes, called an omnibus (Latin for “for all”). If these bills are passed before the fiscal year, or one of the CRs expires, the government continues running. Otherwise, a government shutdown occurs.

The Effect on Parks and Rec
So, what is in these appropriations bills for park and recreation professionals? The Land and Water Conservation Fund, some transportation funding, Community Development Block Grants, 21st Century Community Learning Centers and NRPA’s work on arthritis prevention and mentoring are all funded fully or in part through the appropriations process. NRPA has been successful in growing and protecting these funding streams, but not without your help.

Is your head spinning yet? Fear not. NRPA will update you on the appropriations process via our advocacy action center. From there, you can write your members of Congress and explain to them the importance of parks and recreation.

Kyle Simpson is NRPA's Senior Government Affairs Manager.