Appropriations by Congress

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APPROPRIATIONS BY CONGRESS. The power to appropriate funds gives Congress influence over all activities of the federal government. Article 1, section 9 of the U.S. Constitution specifies that "No Money shall be drawn from the Treasury, but in Consequence of Appropriations made by Law." Through appropriations Congress can fund or frustrate a president's programs, dictate policy to government agencies, and reward members with federal projects in their home districts and states. Writing in the Federalist Papers, James Madison described appropriations as Congress's "most complete and effective weapon … for carrying into effect every just and salutary measure."

Congress first enacted all appropriations in a single bill. As spending grew, it divided appropriations into bills with specific purposes. Until the Civil War, the House Committee on Ways and Means and the Senate Finance Committee both raised and appropriated federal funds. To establish better control over spending, the House of Representatives in 1865 and the Senate in 1867 created their own Appropriations Committees. Each has thirteen subcommittees to handle specific appropriations. The chairs of these subcommittees hold such authority that they are known as the "cardinals" of Capitol Hill.

At the beginning of each year the Office of Management and the Budget submits the president's proposed budget. The Budget Committees approve or amend that budget, setting overall revenue and spending targets. Other standing committees report legislation authorizing programs that will often exceed the budget's financial limits. The Appropriations Committees then determine which programs to fund and at what levels. They seek to complete their work before the start of the next fiscal year on 1 October.

Congress enacts appropriations on a single-year basis, although it authorizes some agencies to make long-term contractual agreements. Without approval of the annual appropriations, federal money cannot be spent and agencies cannot function. Since the 1980s, Congress has passed continuing resolutions where by, if it does not complete action on an appropriation, the affected agencies can continue to operate under their previous year's budget. In a showdown with congressional Republicans in 1995, President Bill Clinton vetoed several appropriations, causing much of the federal government to shut down temporarily.

Presidents have generally been reluctant to veto an entire appropriations bill over objections to a particular item. Some presidents impounded—or did not spend—appropriated funds for unwanted programs, a practice voided by the Congressional Budget and Impoundment Act of 1974. In an effort to reduce soaring deficits, Congress in 1996 granted presidents an item veto. But in 1998 the U.S. Supreme Court declared the item veto an unconstitutional delegation of Congress's authority over federal spending.

The Constitution provides for revenue bills to originate in the House, and by extension the House claimed the right to originate appropriations. If the Senate votes for different amounts than what the House has appropriated, the two versions must be reconciled by a conference committee. Congress also enacts supplemental appropriations to meet additional or unexpected needs, such as disaster relief.

Reflecting their power and prestige, and the vast expansion of federal spending, the Appropriations Committees have the largest membership of any committee in either house. Despite protests from presidents over congressional "earmarking" of appropriations for specific purposes, and criticism over "pork barrel" legislation that funds members' desired projects, Congress has tenaciously preserved its power of the purse.


Fenno, Richard F., Jr. The Power of the Purse: Appropriations Politics in Congress. Boston: Little, Brown, 1966.

Kiewiet, D. Roderick, and Mathew D. McCubbins. The Logic of Delegation: Congressional Parties and the Appropriations Process. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1991.

Munson, Richard. The Cardinals of Capitol Hill: The Men and Women Who Control Government Spending. New York: Grove Press, 1993.

Donald A.Ritchie

See alsoBalanced Budget Amendment ; Budget, Federal .