Government Funding Cheat Sheet

January 25, 2019

The appropriations process is filled with jargon and acronyms that get thrown around on Capitol Hill. Bookmark this cheat-sheet of terms to use throughout the spring!


Fiscal year: a 12-month accounting period from Oct 1 to September 30, which the U.S. government uses instead of the traditional calendar year.

Fiscal Year 2019 (FY19): This is the current government year we’re in, October 1, 2018 – September 30, 2019. Disputes over funding for FY 2019 led to the recent government shutdown.

Fiscal Year 2020 (FY20): The work you’ll do this spring will be to influence funding levels for FY20 (October 1, 2019- September 30, 2020).

Parts of the federal budget

Mandatory spending: Spending that is already required by law and will automatically continue without action from lawmakers (in other words, it’s not a part of the appropriations process, but is a part of the federal budget). Examples: Social Security, Medicare/Medicaid, and SNAP (formerly food stamps).

Discretionary spending: Unlike the “automatic” nature of mandatory spending, discretionary spending is voluntary and determined by Congress every year during the appropriations process. Examples: international health programs, education, disaster assistance, and defense.

The Appropriations process – What are the pieces?

Appropriations: The yearly process for Congress to decide how to spend money in the federal budget. They “appropriate” money line-by-line to different programs (for example, the Global Fund to Fight AIDS, Tuberculosis and Malaria).

Enacted levels for program funding: The current funding level based on the most recently passed appropriations bill.

Continuing Resolution (CR): A temporary measure to fund the government, often used as a stopgap when the full spending bills have not been passed by Congress.

Government Shutdown: This is what happens when Congress fails to agree on how to fund the government before the end of the fiscal year (or before the continuing resolution expires).

The Appropriations process – Who does what?

Appropriations Committees and Subcommittees: Both the House and the Senate have standing committees that focus solely on appropriations, or how to spend the money in the federal budget. Each is divided into 12 subcommittees that focus on particular areas, from housing to transportation to agriculture. RESULTS’ global campaigns directs its advocacy towards the House and Senate subcommittees that control funding for international health and poverty programs (known as the State, Foreign Operations, and Related Programs subcommittees)

State and Foreign Operations and Related Programs (SFOPs): The SFOPs subcommittees determines the annual funding levels for foreign policy priorities – everything from operating U.S. Embassies around the world, to paying State Department staff, to fighting global poverty (this is all sometimes referred to as the “international affairs budget” or the “150 Account”). Both the House and Senate subcommittees write their own version of the bill, and then try to come to agreement. At RESULTS, we work to make sure that the SFOPs bill includes specific funding levels for certain health and development programs.

Chair: The Chair is the head of a congressional committee or subcommittee. They always represent the majority party (right now, the Republicans in the Senate and the Democrats in the House).

Ranking Member: The Ranking Member is the most senior member of the minority party on a congressional committee or subcommittee.

Leadership: Leadership in Congress are the heads of the parties represented by the Speaker of the House/House Minority Leader or Senate Leader/Senate Minority Leader. Leadership on a committee is the Chair and Ranking Member.

Members of Congress: Members of Congress who aren’t on one of the relevant subcommittees still have a hugely important role in three key ways:

  • Sign-On Letter (also called a “Dear Colleague”): A sign-on letter is designed to rally support for RESULTS’ funding priorities. Members of Congress circulate the letter to their colleagues to get as many “sign-ons” as possible, and then it’s sent on to the Chair and Ranking Member of the SFOPS committee. Letters with a high number of signatures from both Democrats and Republicans have the most sway.
  • Personal Requests: All members of Congress can speak or write to the subcommittee leadership, asking them to include specific funding levels in their bill.
  • Speaking Personally: Members of Congress often make personal appeals to their colleagues to support the issues they care about. But depending on the situation and the members, it can take more political capital to weigh in this way with leadership.

Foreign Policy Aide: The person in a congressional office who helps your member of Congress make decisions on foreign policy (including funding requests).

Other Parts of the Budget Process

President’s Request (also called “President’s Budget”): Before appropriations start, the president’s budget request, typically released in early February, lays out the administration’s priorities for the following fiscal year, which begins October 1. For the past two years, the president has proposed slashing funding for key international development programs. Congress, however, is not obligated to adopt the president’s budget and has so far rejected his proposed cuts.

Congressional Budget Resolution: The budget “blueprint” that Congress develops following the president’s request. While non-binding, the Congressional Budget Resolution is important because it sets the terms of the budget debate and lays out the maximum amount of money that will be available for a variety of federal programs, including international development programs.

Budget Caps: Just to make things even more confusing, one layer up from any of the annual appropriations or budget work are federal budget caps. In 2011, Congress passed a law setting “caps” on spending to try to decrease the national debt. But every couple of years since then, they’ve agreed that those caps are too restrictive, and voted to raise them. The latest budget caps deal goes through September 2019. If they fail to reach a new deal on caps by then, automatic cuts, known as sequestration, will kick in. In any new budget deal, we’ll be pushing for a special increase for low-income rental housing assistance.

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