Understanding Authorization and Appropriation

In addition to developing policy, Congress has the power to “authorize” agencies to enact or carry out policy. Congress further influences an agency’s ability to implement policies via annual “appropriations” bills that fund agencies. These policy decisions can stimulate or stall the implementation of policy already made.

Authorization Power

Through its “authorization power”, Congress exercises the ultimate control over any government agency. If a policy is passed by Congress, but not authorized, no funding will be allocated in appropriations bills to implement the policy. As such, authorization power is the power of life and death over every government agency.

Policies require initial authorization when first passed, and many require reauthorization for funding to continue into the next fiscal budget year. For example, welfare reform and child care policies are just two policy issues where funding allocations for various services must be renewed via annual appropriations bills.

The entire authorization process may involve hearings, studies, and reports to help Congress review and gauge the value of programs implemented as a result of their policy decision. From an advocate’s perspective, the key to the process is the authorization statute (a bill or law), which creates and shapes government programs and establishes legislative policy for the agency. Usually, authorizations establish dollar ceilings on the amounts that can be appropriated for a specific program, and do not guarantee financing for other programs or agencies.

As an advocate, it’s important to understand that once a bill is passed, the real work begins. Many bills are passed by Congress without any intention of funding the measures. This, combined with the continual need to justify reauthorization, means family and consumer sciences advocates must remain vigilant to ensure their concerns are addressed and funded.

Appropriations Process

The appropriation power of Congress is one of its most important powers. It stems from the constitutional requirement that “no money shall be drawn from the Treasury, but in consequence of appropriations made by law.”

Appropriations bills define the specific funding level for each federal agency as well as for programs and divisions within the agency. The appropriations committees make “line-item” budget decisions, while the budget committees make decisions about broader, functional categories. The budget committees cannot decide how much money will be available for programs; that is a function of the appropriations committees. The appropriations committees, however, must stay within the budget parameters established by the budget committees.

Each year the appropriations committees send bills to the floor of the House and Senate concerning how much money they recommend to fund certain programs. Advocates must communicate each year to see that the appropriations committees recommend sufficient funds to support their programs.