Civics Refresher: The skinny on the federal budget process

by | Apr 1, 2017 | Actions, News

On March 16, the president released his preliminary federal budget request for the fiscal year 2018, which is scheduled to begin in October 2017. This was the debut of the document titled, America First: A Budget Blueprint to Make America Great Again, which will be considered by Congress over the next two months or so.

This so-called skinny budget, a $1.1 trillion spending plan, lays the groundwork for the president’s budget priorities. This budget is loaded with capital increases to our already beer-bellied military and defense spending, while other important agency budgets are gutted. This proposal will eventually lead to the adoption of a final budget for the upcoming fiscal year.

The entire process is guided by the Congressional Budget Act, which lays out a timeline that must be adhered to by the president and Congress. The House and Senate budget committees will now look over this financial and political framework and decide how they will flesh it out, appropriate funds to agencies, set tax revenue goals, and reconcile policies that affect the budget.

The 12 appropriations committees in each congressional chamber will hold hearings on the parts of the budget under their jurisdictions, vote on the details, and then bring it back to the whole body for a vote. The two chambers of Congress will then go to conference to reconcile their versions.


Tiny desk performances

Once both the House and Senate have passed a version of the budget with appropriation bills from each of the 12 committees, it will be sent back to the president for him to sign or veto. That is the key–the president must sign each appropriation bill that makes up the budget–and the final set of bills will become law.

Perhaps the signing will take place at a little desk, or maybe he can get one of those models where you can pedal while you work. You can see a neat, little chart of the process here, which reminds me of my government textbook in high school –from back when we had textbooks and money to adopt updated ones when necessary.

For the Trump Administration, the budget process, seemingly like everything else in this new era of government, is not proceeding exactly as it typically has in the past. With so many appointments still in limbo, and the late date of the skinny request, timely consideration by the committees and the chambers does not look likely.

Normally, the first framework for a federal budget would have been delivered in February, to allow time for the Congress to analyze and negotiate how the budget would be funded. One main difference with this first budget document is that it only includes discretionary spending and none of the other obligations that the federal budget must satisfy.

Discretionary spending is the part of the budget where the president gets to give his wish list to Congress. Really, it is not very fair that Trump only focused on this part and not the hard stuff, like how our country pays its debts, and how we pay for the stuff that we have already promised. But that is not his style, as we have clearly seen. Discretionary spending usually accounts for only a small portion of the federal budget–and half of that is military and defense.


The skinny on the spending

The final package of appropriation bills needs to be signed by October 1 so that funding of the new fiscal year can begin. There are agencies that need to be funded, federal employee salaries that must be paid, federal obligations based on bills that have been passed–and it all needs to be reconciled into a fairly neat package. Of course, that package is pretty huge and unwieldy, and sometimes the bow is not tied so prettily on top.

Yet somehow our Congress and the president are able to work together to craft a budget that provides for those obligations, funding our debt payments, and discretionary funding. You may remember what has happened in the past, when Congress was unable to get this done in a timely manner. We had government shutdowns, or special, continuing resolutions which permitted the government to remain open, even when the bills had not been signed by the first day in October.

While the process is destined to be as arduous as any budget season in recent memory, we can only hope that a reasonable compromise can be achieved without wreaking havoc on our governmental infrastructure. The main consideration at this point is the concrete impact this blueprint will have on our federal government, its departments and agencies, our state governments and their budgets, and what it will mean for all of us on a local level.

Departments with increased funding:

  • Veterans Affairs +$4.4 billion
  • Homeland Security +$2.8 billion
  • Department of Defense +$52.3 billion

Every single other department shows a decrease in requested funding to an alarming degree:

  • Environmental Protection Agency -$2.6 billion
  • Health and Human Services -$12.6 billion
  • Education -$9.2 billion
  • State Department -$10.9 billion
  • Labor-$2.5 billion

The implications of this macheted budget framework are so outrageous that even some Republican governors have voiced their concerns over the indiscriminate cutting of important programs. There are concerns that economic development, job training and safety programs will be eliminated. One agency up for elimination is the U.S. Chemical Safety and Hazard Investigation Board – an independent, federal, non-enforcement agency that investigates industrial chemical accidents.  

These budget cuts will have real and deleterious impacts on the ability of state and local government to serve constituents in the most vulnerable economic positions. Representative Ted Lieu (D-Los Angeles County) has called the budget plan “ridiculous” and “bizarrely cruel.”  The upshot of much of this plan is that states will have to take up most of the financial obligation for programs that they may be unwilling to let go.

One of the most serious deprivations will be seen in public education. Under the new Secretary of Education, Betsy DeVos, the Department of Education will basically be dismantled to make way for the school voucher system. This proposal to introduce a program of school choice is a complete red herring. In many rural areas there are no choices for schooling. If public education’s infrastructure is dismantled and the rights and needs of special education students are ignored, it will mean the end of public education as we know it.

At the moment, it helps to remember that the Blueprint to Make America Great Again is nothing more than a suggestion of priorities. Congress still must suggest their own versions, and negotiate over the thousands of details that make up our federal budget, the underpinning of our democracy. As constituents, we must take a lesson from the recent failure to repeal and replace the Affordable Care Act. Our grassroots efforts have made a huge difference in the ability of this administration to succeed in its goals.

We must keep voicing our resistance to the repugnant and injurious positions taken by our president, and make sure that our congressional representatives know how we feel. But the most powerful way to affect change in this uncertain political climate is to run for office. Don’t forget that our best bet to undo the damage of this administration is to flip congressional seats in 2018, and replace conservative and right wing representatives with progressive and proactive leaders.

Take Action

  • Call and Visit your local representatives and keep the pressure on. If you happen to live in a congressional district with a progressive representative, let them know that you appreciate their efforts.
  • Get on your computer, navigate to, and find out which districts in your neighboring communities may need help to challenge an incumbent.
  • Find out which offices are up for election in the next cycle, sign up for one of several training programs through Emily’s List, She Should Run, or Emerge America, and run for office to represent the progressive values we all cherish.   

Jacqui Viale lives in Long Beach, California, in the 47th Congressional District, which is fortunate to have Alan Lowenthal as its congressperson. Jacqui directs an education nonprofit that provides science, technology and engineering enrichment. Her community activism emphasizes public education and equal rights for all.