Myrna, Mandlawitz, Esq. LDA, Director of Public Policy
Myrna Mandlawitz, Esq.
LDA Director of Public Policy

The annual appropriations process is just getting underway in Congress.  “Appropriations” is a fancy word for funding.  The federal legislative process involves two major steps:  authorization and appropriation. In fact, it’s pretty much the same at the local and State levels, as well.  You have to be familiar with both steps to really understand how government funding works.

Authorization and Appropriation

The first step – authorization – involves Congress passing a law that establishes a program.  For example, in 1975, Congress passed the Education for All Handicapped Act (EHA), the forerunner of what we know today as the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act.  In other words, Congress authorized the program that called for a free appropriate public education for students with disabilities. 


However, without step two – appropriation – States would never have received money to assist them in implementing the federal special education law.  The appropriations, or spending, committees in Congress determined the EHA was worthy of funding and provided grants to States for the purpose of educating students with disabilities. 

The annual appropriations process funds “discretionary” programs, or programs for which spending levels are determined each year by Congress.  These programs are pretty much all we think about as government programs, except for the big “mandatory” programs like Social Security, certain parts of the Vocational Rehabilitation program, Medicare and Medicaid, and some student financial aid programs, like part of the Pell Grant program.  Those mandatory programs are not subject to the regular annual appropriations process because their funding is continuous until Congress decides otherwise.

Funding for the Fiscal Year 2016

The federal fiscal year (FY) begins on October 1 and ends on September 30.  For example, FY 2015 began on October 1, 2014, and ends on September 30, 2015. 

Congress has just begun the process of determining federal appropriations for FY 2016, which begins on October 1, 2015.  There are 12 appropriations subcommittees in the House of Representatives and in the Senate, each of which funds certain agencies of the federal government.  The Labor-Health and Human Services-Education appropriations subcommittee funds all programs in those three departments, and, in fact, is the subcommittee covering the large majority of programs LDA follows closely.  We also keep our eye on the subcommittees that deal with environmental and juvenile justice issues.

Here are the steps in the appropriations process:

  • Each of the 12 appropriations subcommittees passes a bill, determining whether programs under their jurisdictions will receive funding increases or decreases or have funding eliminated.
  • The full appropriations committee in each chamber (House and Senate) votes on the 12 appropriations subcommittee bills.
  • Those bills then go to the floor of the Senate and House for a vote of the full body.
  • If the bills passed in the Senate and House are different, they must go to a conference committee to reconcile the differences in the bills and produce one final bill on which Congress votes.
  • Finally, the bills go to the president for signature or veto.

There is a companion article this month in LDA Legislative News on where Congress is in the appropriations process for FY 2016.  Just a hint:  There are very tight spending caps which are preventing Congress from adequately funding many programs about which LDA members care greatly.  Please tune in to LDA Legislative News over the next few months to learn about the continuing process for FY 2016 and the eventual outcome of program funding for the upcoming fiscal year.

Myrna Mandlawitz, M.Ed., J.D., is the Director of Public Policy for LDA of America. A native of Virginia, she has worked for over 20 years as a consultant/lobbyist on special and general education. Ms. Mandlawitz spent fourteen years as a classroom teacher and assisted in the development of Virginia’s program for infants and toddlers with disabilities. She is the immediate past president of the Committee for Education Funding, a coalition of 114 national organizations supporting increased federal investment in education.
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