Untangling budgets and appropriations

The recent news out of Washington has been all about budget and spending plans from each party. However, unless you’re tuned into this news every day, you might be getting lost in all of the various plans being discussed. We’ll sort through them here, but, first, here is a short lesson on the difference between budgets and appropriations.

Budget bills lay out the framework of spending priorities and visions for improving the fiscal health of the nation, but they don’t include many specifics for the funding of various agencies. Appropriations bills, on the other hand, contain concrete funding numbers for every federal agency. In an ideal world, Congress would agree on a budget, the president would sign it into law and the budget would then serve as a framework for appropriators to work from in their deliberations. In Washington, however, the budgeting and appropriations processes can act independently.

Regarding fiscal 2013 appropriations, both houses are considering continuing resolutions for the rest of the fiscal year. These bills will retain the cuts made by sequestration with a few tweaks. The U.S. House bill, which already has passed, allocates an extra $7 billion to the Defense Department to soften the blow of sequestration. The U.S. Senate bill looks very much like the House bill, although there are some additional funds given to the Commerce and Justice departments as well as the National Science Foundation and the National Aeronautics and Space Administration.

How does the National Institutes of Health fare in these bills? Not so well. Both the House and Senate bills retain the caps on spending as set out under sequestration. Thus, to give extra funds to one department or agency means taking them from another. Undoubtedly, NIH will have even less money to spend if either of these bills becomes law. However, Sen. Tom Harkin, D-Iowa, has proposed an amendment that would restore the NIH budget, and we at the Blotter have heard rumors that Sen. Dick Durbin, D-Ill., also may propose an amendment to restore NIH funding should the Harking amendment fail. The fate of these amendments will determine how much money the NIH has to spend for the rest of the fiscal year.

The bills discussed above are appropriations bills, and they concern actual funding for federal agencies. This week, Rep. Paul Ryan, R-Wis., and Sen. Patty Murray, D-Wash., released competing budget plans that would go into effect for FY14. The vision of each plan is so different, though, that neither of these budgets has a chance of becoming law. In an apt description of these budgets, Dan Nather of Politico said, “The two plans aren’t even apples and oranges. They’re more like apples and bicycles.” On top of this, President Obama will be releasing his own FY14 budget at the beginning of April. To muddy the waters, Obama’s budget will be unlike the Ryan or Murray budgets in that it will ask for specific amounts of money for each federal agency.

In summary, the only bills that would affect federal funding for biomedical research are the FY13 appropriations bills. The budget bills that have been released are mostly used by political opponents to attack each other. Stay tuned to the Policy Blotter to differentiate which bills will affect biomedical research and which are merely being used as political bludgeons.

4 thoughts on “Untangling budgets and appropriations

  1. As someone still trying to understand these convoluted fiscal plans, I have a question. The budgets put out by the senate and house are projections for 10 years. If that is the case, do they still have one each year? I would think the NIH (as well many other agencies) would use these long term frameworks for long term planning, but if the appropriations change every year, it almost seems like fruitless exercise.

  2. David-The president is compelled by the Constitution to produce a budget each year. The House and Senate do not have to release a budget plan each year. The exception being the current year since a law was passed saying that members won’t get paid unless they release a budget. However, passing a budget allows voters to see what the vision of a party is for the country.

    There hasn’t been a budget signed into law for a long time, but even then, a budget is a framework with projections and goals. Under a budget, appropriators would be able to move funds from one area to another while still abiding by the budget law. Also, if a budget is signed into law, Congress could subsequently pass another law declaring the budget invalid. Thus, budget plans do not provide any kind of stability or ability for long-term forecasting. They are visions of where a party thinks the government should spend its money.

  3. Pingback: Major fiscal bills move through Congress | ASBMB Policy Blotter

  4. Pingback: President Obama’s 2014 budget and the National Institutes of Health | ASBMB Policy Blotter

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