Confused by the Federal Budget? You're Not Alone.

March 12, 2013

We have a habit here Inside the Beltway of speaking in code and getting so deep into the woods on policy issues that we only see the trees and not the forest.  Clearly, we are at that point right now in the continuing saga of the federal budget. 

Here's a quick rundown on just three of the terms being bandied about that are very likely to confuse many nationwide - and probably even the majority of us in DC!

Continuing Resolution

A continuing resolution is a legislative remedy that can be used when Congress and the President are unable to agree on appropriations bills, the laws that give the federal government the authority to spend money on "discretionary" programs.  ("Mandatory" programs, such as social security, do not require appropriations bills.)  Should appropriations bills fail to be enacted, the U.S. government must discontinue all "non-essential" discretionary activities and shut down, which happened in 1995.  To avert a shutdown, Congress can pass - and the President can sign - a "continuing resolution," which allows the government to remain open and spend money on the same programs and at the same levels as the previous year. 

Because the 2013 appropriations bills were not passed and signed, spending for the 2013 fiscal year (October 1, 2012 - September 30, 2013) is happening under a continuing resolution that expires at midnight on March 27, 2013.  To prevent a shutdown on March 28, 2013, Congress is considering new legislation that provides appropriations for some federal agencies, along with another continuing resolution to carry the rest of the agencies until the end of this fiscal year.

Budget Resolution

Meanwhile, Congress is starting to plan for the following year, FY 2014, which begins October 1, 2013, by adopting budget resolutions.  A budget resolution is used by Congress to lay out a budget for the upcoming fiscal year and to spell out its vision for federal spending, both mandatory and discretionary, on a 10-year horizon.  This is a mechanism for Congress to signal its budget priorities and is used as part of the negotiation the President and Congress undertake in the budget-making process each year. 

Congressman Paul Ryan (R-WI), Chair of the House Budget Committee, introduced a budget resolution on March 12, 2013 containing his vision for the next 10 years, thus beginning the legislative process of discussing a budget for the federal fiscal year that runs October 1, 2013 - September 30, 2014. This resolution - and one in the Senate to be introduced by Senator Patty Murray (D-WA) - will be the subject of much maneuvering as both bodies in Congress negotiate their budget priorities, while keeping an eye on the President's budget request (see below).

President's Budget Request

Each year, the President develops his (or her) spending priorities for the many departments and agencies that comprise the federal government in the form of the President's budget request.  This request is the other major component in the budget-making process between Congress and the President.  President Obama is expected to release his budget request in early April, setting the stage for intense negotiation over the FY 2014 budget and longer-term spending priorities for the federal government.

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