Every year, Congress uses their “appropriations” process to decide how to spend the money in the U.S. federal budget. Most of that money is already earmarked for mandatory programs (like Social Security and Medicare), but a smaller portion of the budget, the “discretionary spending” is more flexible and can be spent on programs Congress considers a priority.
Discretionary spending levels must be decided annually by the start of the U.S. government’s fiscal year – October 1st. But the process to make those decisions starts way earlier. That’s where you come in.
At the start of every year, RESULTS urges our lawmakers to support funding for health and education programs that can end global poverty. Most lawmakers rarely hear from their constituents during this process, so your voice can have a huge impact. In recent years, RESULTS advocates have gotten hundreds of Congressmembers to agree to our requests, leading to funding increases for global education, global nutrition, and the fight against infectious diseases.
Keep reading to learn the basics of appropriations and how you can make a difference.
How does the appropriations process work?
Each year, the president submits a President’s Budget Request to Congress. It lays out the administration’s priorities and includes specific funding requests for each program they want to fund—for example, requesting $2 billion for the Global Fund to Fight AIDS, Tuberculosis, and Malaria.
Next, the House and Senate Budget Committees create resolutions that allocate a certain amount of money to each of the 12 appropriations subcommittees on each side of Congress. Once each budget resolution passes their chamber, they’re reconciled in a bicameral budget conference, setting the maximum amount of money available to each subcommittee.
Then, the 12 subcommittees each hold hearings and prepare bills that specify funding levels for each individual program. Once the subcommittee passes their bill, the full Appropriations committee votes on it, and then the entire chamber.
If the House and Senate bills don’t match, it’ll take even more negotiation to reconcile the bills. Finally, when Congress agrees on the 12 appropriations bills, they go to the President to be signed.
The goal is to get the bills signed by October 1, when the new fiscal year begins. Unfortunately, it doesn’t always work this way. Congress rarely passes each appropriations bill separately, instead often bundling them together in a larger spending packages known as an “omnibus” or sometimes a “mini-bus.”
Decision making on top-line spending levels for the bills often turns into lengthy partisan negotiations making Congress miss their own deadline. This requires Congress to pass a short term stop gap measure known as a “continuing resolution” (CR) to keep the government funded and to avoid a government shutdown. CRs extend the current level of funding at the previous year’s appropriated level. If a CR is extended for a full year, funding for our spending priorities remains flat.
Congress must pass their annual appropriations bills for us to get funding increases for the programs we advocate for.
What terms do I need to know?
Here’s a government funding cheat sheet with important terms and definitions!
How can I take action?
RESULTS volunteers are an integral part of the appropriations process, and there are many ways to get involved. Members that aren’t on the Appropriations committee still have a key role. They have an opportunity to submit input on each of the 12 bills, and we can influence which issues they prioritize in their submissions to the State and Foreign Operations and Related Programs (SFOPs) subcommittee, which manages foreign policy appropriations.
Dear Colleague Sign-on letters
During the appropriations process, members of Congress can make their priorities known by signing on to “Dear Colleague” letters for issues that they care about. Each letter is circulated by champions in Congress asking other members to join them, like a petition. Then, the letters are sent to the leaders of the SFOPs subcommittee, which writes the foreign aid spending bill. These letters can have a lot of sway, and a large number of bipartisan signers shows the committee that there is strong support for that issue.
Our job is to ask members of Congress to sign the letters we’re endorsing. Typically, we prioritize Dear Colleague letters on global Tuberculosis, Maternal and Child Health and Nutrition, the Global Fund to Fight AIDS, Tuberculosis and Malaria, and global education. You can find our FY25 Dear Colleague letters here.
Appropriations request forms
Members can also personally speak or write to subcommittee leadership, asking them to include specific funding levels in their bill. By reaching out to your member’s office and filling out their appropriations form, we can let them know that their constituents want them to submit requests for increased global health and education funding. RESULTS staff can help you fill out the forms, which can often require a lot of specific information on the accounts. You can find cheat sheets here, or email Katie at [email protected] with any questions.
Most Americans don’t follow the Appropriations process, meaning members of Congress don’t always feel pressure from their constituents to fight for specific programs. But you can get our issues on their radar by sending an email, calling their offices, and asking for a meeting with their Foreign Policy staffers. Your goal is to introduce our appropriations asks, share why those issues matter to you, and ask your senator or representative to speak to members of SFOPs about our requests. You can find our FY25 asks here, and more information about working with Congress here.
Another great way to put pressure on elected officials is to use the media to share the importance of our issues and urge others to get involved. You can submit op-eds or LTEs in your local newspaper and work with your group to recruit as many people to reach out to their offices as possible. You can find more information about working with the media here.
How has our work made a difference?
We know that your appropriations work every spring has a huge impact. Your emails, forms, calls, articles, and meetings let your members of Congress know what they should prioritize in their requests to appropriations committees. And RESULTS is a key factor in making sure our issues become priorities.
In past years, the global health Dear Colleague letters we worked on were significantly more bipartisan and had a greater number of signers than other global health Dear Colleague letters. Your advocacy on these letters made a huge difference in growing bipartisan support for our core priorities. And your successes demonstrate the power of our network to make connections with lawmakers to make a difference.
If you’d like to learn more about the appropriations process, here are some additional resources:
The appropriations process
- Appropriations 101: January 2023 Global Policy Forum
- Appropriations 201: February 2023 Global Policy Forum
- What the heck is appropriations, and what’s it got to do with me?
- Appropriations Overview from the Senate
- Appropriations 101 by Committee for a Responsible Federal Budget
- A Brief Guide to the Federal Budget and Appropriations Process by the American Council on Education