The Trump administration has released its first federal budget proposal, America First: A Budget Blueprint to Make America Great Again. This proposal has sparked considerable controversy, so I got interested in how the federal budget even works. With my standard caveats,* here are some common questions and the source documents that help answer those questions.
It’s called a proposal. How much control does the President actually have over the Federal Budget? And how does that process work?
The History, Art & Archives site from the House of Representatives gives an overview of the “Power of the Purse,” which the Constitution grants primarily to Congress. The House further outlines the Budget Process and provides a timetable for that budget process. This process begins with the President’s budget proposal and proceeds with the Congress proposing appropriations legislation (12 “regular” appropriations bills emanating from 12 sub-committees of the House and Senate Appropriations Committees) which may or may not take the President’s suggestions. Some or all of these bills may be consolidated into an omnibus bill for passage. Appropriations legislation is just like most other legislation in that it must be passed by both the House and the Senate and then signed by the President. The President can veto the bills (in their entirety, not line-item), Congress can override the veto, etc.
In years where they can’t agree by October 1st (frequent) they can pass Continuing Resolutions to keep things funded at current rates until they can make a decision about the future.
The Budget and Accounting Act of 1921 requires the President to submit the initial budget proposal to Congress, and the budget process as a whole is governed by Title 31, Subtitle II, Chapter 11 of the United States Code. Prior to 1974, presidents were able to “impound” funds (not spend them even after they had been budgeted), but due to perceived abuses by Nixon the Congressional Budget and Impoundment Control Act of 1974 reorganized the budgeting process to place more control in Congress’ hands. This, too, has been amended several times, so if you want to read current law you can look at Chapters 17, 17A, and 17B of Title II of the United States Code.
For comparison, you can look back at previous White House budget proposals.
How will I know what Congress’ budget looks like?
You can track the various bills as they appear and move through the budget process. (Remember that Omnibus Bills can gather up many of the smaller bills, so just because a bill didn’t become law by itself doesn’t mean it didn’t become law as part of an omnibus bill.)
What does Trump’s proposal actually propose?
The President’s proposal is available online. Reading it as a message to Congress about this administration’s priorities, the most succinct articulation of Trump’s priorities occurs in the “President’s Message” at the beginning of the document. President Trump entitled this message “America First: Beginning a New Chapter of American Greatness.” Here is an excerpt:
One of the most important ways the Federal Government sets priorities is through the Budget of the United States.
Accordingly, I submit to the Congress this Budget Blueprint to reprioritize Federal spending so that it advances the safety and security of the American people.
Our aim is to meet the simple, but crucial demand of our citizens—a Government that puts the needs of its own people first. When we do that, we will set free the dreams of every American, and we will begin a new chapter of American greatness.
A budget that puts America first must make the safety of our people its number one priority— because without safety, there can be no prosperity. (page 1)
Note that this proposal does not include everything that will be proposed:
The 2018 Budget is being unveiled sequentially in that this Blueprint provides details only on our discretionary funding proposals. The full Budget that will be released later this spring will include our specific mandatory and tax proposals, as well as a full fiscal path. (page 5)
Additional key statements providing policy guidance to Congress include:
- “The Federal Government can—and should— operate more effectively, efficiently, and securely.” (page 13)
- “Each year, however, Federal agencies issue thousands of new regulations that, taken together, impose substantial burdens on American consumers and businesses big and small. These burdens function much like taxes that unnecessarily inhibit growth and employment.” (page 15)
- The phrase “private sector” shows up 12 times in the document, signaling an emphasis on moving support for some activities out of the government and into the private sector.
Following these opening sections, the proposal covers 17 major areas of the federal budget. Below I’ve linked to each of those agencies’ budget pages:
- Department of Agriculture
- Department of Commerce
- Department of Defense
- Department of Education
- Department of Energy
- Department of Health and Human Services
- Department of Homeland Security
- Department of Housing and Urban Development
- Department of the Interior
- Department of Justice
- Department of Labor
- Department of State, USAID and Treasury International Programs
- Department of Transportation
- Department of the Treasury
- Department of Veterans Affairs
- Environmental Protection Agency
- National Aeronautics and Space Administration
- Small Business Administration
When would any changes take place?
Assuming the legislative process wraps up on schedule, the new budget for Fiscal Year 2018 would swing into effect on October 1st, 2017.
Two caveats: 1) Not all knowable things are knowable using official, original published sources, but that’s the limit I’ve set for myself even when that’s inconvenient or frustrating, and 2) I am a librarian trained in tracking down and evaluating sources — nothing more or less than that. I’m doing my best to find the most authoritative version of the primary sources behind the news, and I welcome suggestions and corrections.