The Appropriations Process from the Perspective of a Congressional Staffer

Mark Harkins | March 10, 2020

Welcome to appropriations season on Capitol Hill.  With the President’s budget officially submitted last month it is now up to Congress to decide what to keep, what to discard, and what to enhance. I want to focus on the third category, and I offer these thoughts from the perspective of someone with nearly two decades of Capitol Hill service, including as a staffer for a House Appropriations Committee member.

The first step Congress takes when considering the President’s budget is getting input from agencies and outside groups. This normally takes place from the middle of February through March. For staff, both in the Committee and in Members’ personal offices, this is an incredibly busy time featuring a multitude of different perspectives and suggested improvements.  The purpose of all these discussions is identifying the recommendations a Member should make to enhance the President’s request so it benefits their constituents.

Back before Congress implemented a moratorium on earmarks in 2011 the most difficult part of this process for staff was discerning which projects the Congressman should advocate for and in what order.  The order was critical as members typically would only receive a few requests in each bill. The farther from the top of the list a project sat, the less likely it was to receive funding. Once staff submitted their request lists to the appropriate subcommittee (originally in letter form, and now via an online system prone to frequent crashes), Appropriations Committee staff would compile a spreadsheet with thousands of requests. Personal office staff would then prepare bullet point priority lists for their bosses to hand to the Subcommittee Chair on the House floor during a vote. If the Member was very interested in a project, s/he might even go meet with subcommittee staff to plead their case.

The process is not terribly different today.  The major change is the prohibition on Member-directed projects, or earmarks. Now, instead of urging funding for a specific community or business, Members can only advocate at the program level – expressing support or opposition to what the President’s budget did to a particular item.  But the lists still get submitted, and each subcommittee has a deadline, many of which are this month.

The staff in a Member’s office usually does not have the technical expertise or time to obtain all the information needed to fill out the subcommittee forms, especially for defense programs, and rely on outside organizations to provide that information.  Each of the twelve subcommittees has a different format for accepting the information and the forms are only accessible by House or Senate staff. Non-Congressional players cannot go directly to the Appropriations Committee to ask for changes.  They must go through a Congressional office. And every one of the 541 offices obtains that information in a different format, making it difficult for constituent groups to efficiently package the information and adds a layer of complexity to an already difficult process.

This can also be a busy time for agency budget officers. For the Defense Subcommittee, the form has a slot for who at the Pentagon will vouch for this request.  It is commonly thought that Congress dictates to the agencies all programmatic changes, but that is not true.  In some cases agencies ask for and welcome Congressional changes to their budget request. In fact, the Department of Defense, at Congress’ request, gives Members a list of projects they would like but did not make it into the President’s budget because other priorities took precedence. The Unfunded Requirements list (UFR) is the name for this list and it has items big and small. This year it includes a $2 billion submarine for the Navy.

Consider, after the administration spends seven months making difficult decisions and tradeoffs, Congress asks them to reevaluate yet again, identifying winners and losers among their programs. Because appropriating is a zero sum game, the UFR list sets the stage to reconsider the decisions made by the President. The Navy is not going to get an additional $2 billion for a second submarine without an opportunity cost to another program that has already managed to make it to the budget. And this list often forms the basis for Members to make requests of the appropriations committee. If they construct any part of the submarine in their district the office will certainly refer to the UFR list and trumpet the fact back home that they are fighting the President to secure additional jobs in the district.

This process, as messy as it is, gives every member an important opportunity to say yes to a constituency by making requests to appropriators. Thousands of requests are made each year, and certainly not all are honored, but the staff work that goes into the process is intense. Before they can be requested, they require vetting by the personal office staff to ensure the project will not be seen as a waste of government funds. And before they can be honored, they require research by Appropriations Committee staff to ensure the agency can actually use the funding, and that it does not constitute an earmark. Ultimately, as many requests as possible are honored because the committee wants to give members of the House and Senate reasons to vote for the bills.

This time of year is when members ask for the presents they want under the tree.  It is only when the final bill is signed into law that they find out if they get to give them and whether all that staff work in March paid off.

Mark Harkins is a Senior Fellow at the Government Affairs Institute

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