There’s always money in the banana stand: why budgets don’t actually matter

UntitledThe House of Representatives is set to begin the appropriations process after Congress’ Memorial Day recess. This is much more important that the budget discussions that took place in March and April because appropriations actually play a role in how the federal government spends money. There is basically a three step process that determines levels of federal spending: 1) budgets, 2) appropriations, and 3) authorization. Step one does not matter.

That’s right, the budgets passed in both the House and Senate have zero impact on government spending. Budgets are non-binding resolutions and will never, ever become law. They are a statement of principles: “We believe this program is good, while this program is bad. Fund the first one, cut the second” etc. Each party makes their wish lists, postures and points fingers, and then votes on the meaningless documents. After budgeting comes the appropriations process.

In appropriations, committees look at all the funding requests submitted by members of Congress and decide which should receive money. These requests cover every possible thing you could imagine, and more. Literally everything. One member may want funding for a grant program for research on Lou Gehrig’s disease, while another may want to set money aside for an aircraft carrier. However, just getting money appropriated doesn’t get it spent. Things move on to Round 3: authorization.

Once funds have been appropriated to various projects, Congress then has to authorize the spending. It may come as no surprise, but it’s extremely easy to get lost in the budget process (and maybe even this post). There are a countless number of projects that have had funding appropriated but not authorized. They sit in a weird limbo and nothing ever happens to them.

So, when Democrats say Rep. Paul Ryan’s budget would end Medicare as we know it, or when Republicans say Rep. Chris Van Hollen’s budget would “put the breaks on our economy,” just remember neither will. In fact, neither will do anything because that’s not where the money is. But there’s always money in the banana stand.


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