CongressLine, by Authorization and Appropriation

Congress has a whole vocabulary all to itself. Many of these unique terms have been written about in my previous CongressLine articles. This month I will briefly delve into the most important terms a Congressional observer should know; if you know the difference between these two terms (as they apply to Congress), you have passed Congress 101 and can go to the next class. The terms are Appropriation and Authorization.

Almost everything Congress does revolves around these two terms. Committees are organized by these terms and Congressional power struggles usually revolve around them. They categorize most of what Congress does.

Everyone is familiar with the role Congress plays when it comes to the Federal budget. The President proposes a budget, but nothing can be spent until Congress acts, and there is more to it than just telling the President that he can sign the check. Congress provides for several steps before the President can do anything and it can be very confusing to the someone following the action.

Before money can be spent, Congress must authorize the expenditure first, and then must appropriate the money to do so. Without these two steps, nothing can be done. For example, last Fall Congress authorized the construction of a fortified border fence between the U.S. and Mexico. Everyone thought it was done and that the fence could be built now. Congresspersons went home for Election Day and touted their achievement. But wait. They authorized the fence, but nothing had yet been appropriated to actually build it. Pretty clever; they got the credit (or blame) for the action but never spend the money.

There are really two different classes of people on Capitol Hill (and they overlap): the authorizers and the appropriators. Authorizers usually have the more august titles, such as Chairman of the House Committee on Foreign Relations or Chairman of the House Ways and Means Committee. Appropriators live in their own separate world, somewhat mirroring the authorizer world, and have such titles as Chairman of the Appropriations Subcommittee on Agriculture. (Sometimes, these subcommittee chairpersons are called the "Cardinals") It isn't quite a parallel universe however, since there are significant differences and different roles for each type.

A large majority of what Congress does involves introducing, debating and passing authorizing legislation. Authorizing legislation provides for the authority to do something. It may create a new Department or Bureau, devise a new program, and outline responsibilities of some government entity. Basically, authorizing legislation is what most people think of when they think of legislation. Most of the regular committees of Congress only deal with this type of legislation. If you want to get the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) to change how your cable provider bills you, you ask your Congress person to introduce a bill to do so, or have him or her amend some other bill to get it done. Everything in government has been authorized in some form at some time. The FCC was initially authorized way back in the 1930s and people still go back to that dusty bill to check its authority. Social Security, Medicare, Medicaid, every Cabinet Department, the Army, Navy, the Post Office - everything was created by authorizing legislation in Congress at some time. Maybe it was a hundred years ago, but it was authorized. In fact, not only authorized but re-authorized over and over again.

The other side of the coin is appropriations. Appropriations bills do not authorize, (though in some cases authorization bills can appropriate, though for simplicity's sake, let's keep the two separate). In order to appropriate money, the program (where the money is being spent) must be authorized.

Appropriations I have addressed before. There are two Appropriations Committees in Congress (House and Senate), both broken down into subcommittees that mirror the Federal Government. Each subcommittee takes on an odd chunk of the government, say the Commerce Department, NASA, State Department and the Justice Department. These committees produce 13 bills (for each chamber) that appropriate the money to fund everything. These bills are chock full tables of appropriated money to this or that program and text that reads like ledger. New programs and new authority to change programs do not belong in these bills. Congress has rules that prevent this from happening…'you shall not legislate in an appropriations bill.' But this being Congress, sometimes it happens. A rule in Congress is not like it is a law; it's just a rule that can be waived when necessary.

Back to the border fence example. The Homeland Security Authorization Bill authorized the construction of the fence. Now it is up to the Homeland Security Subcommittees of the Appropriations Committees to actually pony up the money. (Technically they don't create the money; they give the authority to the U.S. Treasury to make the expenditure).

Appropriations and Authorization are frequently confused. Much of Congress' time is spent on Appropriations bills and so they are frequently in the news. So much time that frequently all other bills are forgotten. Last year, Congress didn't even get to all the Appropriations bills either. Congress gets too busy that sometimes the required authorization step gets in the way.

Every year however Congress does try (and it sometimes is merely an attempt) to re-authorize some area of the government. The Defense Department is the only part of Government that is dutifully re-authorized like clock-work every year. I suspect that all the politically desirable defense weapons programs are part of the reason behind this efficiency. Everything else is subject to the strange calendar of Congress. An Energy bill (authorizing various energy programs in the Department of Energy) comes along every three or so years. A Farm bill (Department of Agriculture) comes along every four or so years. The Transportation Department also gets reauthorized usually using colorful acronym titles - like ICETEA or such every three or so years. Note I say "or so" because it really is not set in stone and these bills can be enormously difficult political animals. Sometimes, Congress just can't agree and it has to wait until another year. This year they are scheduled to create a new Farm Bill (Agriculture Reauthorization), but they may or may not do so, however. Some agencies are not as lucky to get reauthorized even every 3 or 4 years; sometimes it takes a decade or more. It is not as if the Departments will go away if they are not re-authorized. In fact, mini-reauthorizations happen all the time to create some new project or scheme if necessary.

Part of the authorization language is the authorization to appropriate money. One bill creates the scheme and authorizes the appropriations of money. Another actually appropriates the money. The whole thing is like a child's allowance, while a child may dream of all he or she wants to spend money on, but it is all dependent on the parent's actual distribution of the cash to make the dream a reality.

If I have confused you, welcome to my world. This is a world of law, very detailed law. Everything has an elaborate process. Some of which seems cumbersome but really is quite necessary. Do you really want the same people appropriating the money and developing the programs? Do you really want vast government programs to change every year based upon some odd political maneuver passed in the middle of the night? Yes, I really said that! Such things still happen, but there is a process and for the most part, it is followed.

One area of authorization that is kind of interesting is the authorization for war. This type of authorization is blessed by the Constitution. Only Congress can declare war, which technically is not an authorization, it is a declaration. But how about all the conflicts we have had since World War Two? They all have been authorized by a bill in Congress. Congress can authorize the conflict and the President can direct the military, but Congress must also appropriate the money to pay the soldiers and buy the bullets. This is a bit of a quandary that Congress will address this spring. The President, acting on his authority as Commander in Chief and also as authorized by Congress, is waging a military conflict in Iraq. Congress will soon get to the task of allocating the money needed to do so. One could argue that the Vietnam War drew to a close (for the United States) primarily because Congress got tired of appropriating the money to fight it. We didn't lose; Congress stopped footing the bill and we had to go home. That conflict was authorized (Gulf of Tonkin Resolution) and for years money was appropriated to fund it.

Of course it is not that easy. Congress can't just turn off the money spigot. The President and his supporters have many tools to keep things going. No President has even recognized Congress' prerogative to authorize military action. Also, no Congressperson worth his or her salt would ever want to be in the position of turning off the money while U.S. troops are in the field getting shot at. Congress can be indecisive, lazy, argumentative, and even stupid, but they are not craven.

The authority to create and the authority to appropriate are interesting elements to consider when monitoring and examining Congressional actions. Once you get used to it, it makes sense, but one needs to be very careful. The next time you read the beginning of a bill in Congress…check the wording. Does it say "authorization" or "appropriation"? Be careful, it makes a difference.