By Katie Pflaumer, AMS Marketing Communications Manager, and Paul Higgins, AMS Associate Executive Director for Policy
The federal budget is the cornerstone for much of the scientific funding in the United States. Directly or indirectly, federal funding impacts the work of almost all AMS members and those in related fields. But do you know how it works? Even if you’re not attending the AMS Summer Policy Colloquium this coming week, you can still get a sense of budget basics with this quick guide from the AMS Policy Program.
Science, Policy, and the Budget
Scientific insights can influence policy and help improve it—this is one major way that science matters to society, whether we’re determining how to manage reservoirs or what we are going to do about climate change. But however you slice it, the decisions made by policymakers and politicians also affect how we practice science. Perhaps the most prominent way is through funding for research—determining what gets funded, and how much.
For our purposes, the two key components of the U.S. federal budget are revenue (taxes and fees taken in by the federal government) and spending.
- Mandatory spending is required by existing public law or statute. Nearly two-thirds of government spending comes from existing laws—such as those that fund Social Security and Medicare along with payments on the nation’s debt.
- Discretionary spending has to be funded each year or at other regular intervals through an act of Congress. Many government agencies (including scientific ones) rely on discretionary spending.
The annual budget process is how the U.S. Government determines its discretionary spending. The budget is a highly political document. It is one of the places where big philosophical questions play out about who should pay for what, the size and role of the federal government, and different approaches to debts, deficits, and surpluses. Increased spending in any one area requires more taxes, taking funding away from something else, or deficit spending (and adding on debt). Decreased spending requires difficult decisions about what programs or benefits get cut.
The Budget Process: Resolutions, Reconciliation, and Appropriations, Oh My!
The U.S. government runs on a fiscal year that starts on October 1 of the previous calendar year (so FY 2024 begins October 1, 2023). Our current budget framework is outlined in the Congressional Budget Act of 1974.
The U.S. House and Senate together hold the purse strings for the federal budget, but the executive branch has the first go at things. Here’s how the process works in a “typical” year.
The president develops a detailed budget request. This request is managed by the Office of Management and Budget and developed in concert with federal agencies, and is due to Congress on the first Monday in February prior to the start of the next fiscal year.
The Senate and the House of Representatives develop a joint congressional budget resolution that specifies overall tax and spending levels, providing a top-line budget number. The budget resolution can also include “reconciliation”—legislation that can address revenue or spending issues affecting the overall budget, including in ways that significantly change existing laws.
The House and Senate vote on the budget resolution. Note: Both the budget resolution and any reconciliation measures need only a simple majority vote in the Senate and aren’t subject to the vote-stalling technique known as a filibuster (which requires 60 votes to break). Reconciliation measures are sometimes used to pass controversial legislation that wouldn’t receive 60 Senate votes—including the Bush-era tax cuts, fixes for the Affordable Care Act, and the American Rescue Plan of 2021.
The budget resolution, once passed in both the House and the Senate, establishes overall discretionary funding for the House and Senate Committees on Appropriations; this is known as a 302(a) allocation. The main function of the Appropriations committees is to provide discretionary funding to government operations including federal agencies.
The House and Senate Appropriations Committees each parcel the funding out to twelve Appropriations subcommittees (each of which receives a 302(b) allocation). The House and Senate Appropriations subcommittees develop more detailed spending plans based on the allocations received.
Each of the subcommittees can pass a separate funding bill, but they are often passed as a single “omnibus” bill covering some or all of the 12 appropriations. The House and Senate must come to agreement on and pass identical versions of these funding bills. Unlike the original budget resolution, this requires a 60-vote majority in the Senate to avoid a filibuster. Any provisions in the bill(s) that would exceed the allotted budget are also subject to filibuster.
The House and Senate must pass the budget bill(s) and get them signed by the president (or override the president’s veto) by the time the fiscal year begins.
Subcommittees Funding Science
Several appropriations subcommittees deal with science-related agencies (for example, the defense budget funds a lot of science research). However, the three subcommittees that have the greatest science focus are likely Commerce, Justice, Science, and Related Agencies (budgets for NOAA, NASA, the NSF, and the National Institute of Standards and Technology, among others), Energy and Water Development (which includes the Department of Energy and its Office of Science), and Interior, Environment, and Related Agencies (which includes both USGS and EPA).
That’s the idea—in practice, it’s often a lot more complicated. For example, when FY 2014 started without an agreed-upon budget, the government shut down for 16 days. In mid-October, Congress passed a “continuing resolution” to allow the government to reopen using the previous year’s budget levels. The final omnibus budget wasn’t signed until January 2014, more than three months into the fiscal year.
As you can see, the politics of funding the U.S. government makes for a major challenge, requiring a lot of work, diplomacy, and give-and-take—far more than we can get into in a blog post. If you’d like to explore the topic further, a more thorough rundown on the budget is available in this AMS webinar recording: “The U.S. Federal Budget and Policy Process.” And don’t forget to follow the AMS Policy Program for more ways you can learn about—or get involved in—the policy process!
- Center on Budget and Policy Priorities budget overview and explainer
- American Association for the Advancement of Science, Research and Development Budget and Policy Program budget explainer
- American Institute of Physics Federal Budget Tracker for physical science-related agencies
About the AMS Policy Program
The Policy Program promotes understanding and use of science and services relating to weather, water, and climate. Our goal is to help the nation, and the world, avoid risks and realize opportunities associated with the Earth system.