Top 10 things about how Congress spends our money

By Melissa George Kessler

For the Capital Press

Columnist Melissa George Kessler takes a look at how Congress spends our money.

It’s time once again for Congress to decide how the government is going to spend its — meaning your — money. Wondering what that really means for farming and agriculture? Below are the top 10 things you should know.

10. Congress’ power to allocate funds is written into the Constitution. Legislators can decide to give agencies like the Agriculture Department some leeway, but good and bad money decisions ultimately rest with the 535 voting members on Capitol Hill.

9. Members of Congress give direction to government agencies in two ways, through authorizations and appropriations. Authorizations are laws that establish specific policy, while appropriations are laws that actually fund these activities. Both are necessary for any action to be taken. This is just like ordering at a restaurant: you can tell the waitress what you want, but without paying at some point, you won’t get anything.

8. There are two types of government spending, mandatory and discretionary. Funds are expended for “mandatory spending” items when the program kicks into gear, for instance when someone qualifies for the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program. Discretionary spending is subject to annual debate and allocation by Congress, but really only makes up one-third of all government outlays.

7. The “power of the purse” is real. Federal leaders can often get their way not through direct regulation, but by making benefits of federal money for things like schools and roads contingent upon following a raft of standards and mandates.

6. The appropriations process is as much about policy as it is about money. Policy-specific pieces of appropriations bills, known as “riders,” direct the actions of agencies through withholding or redirecting money. No money, no implementation.

5. In the past, the appropriations process was relatively defined and orderly. Congress wrote and passed budgets to outline spending and then 12 subject-specific appropriations laws, similar to passing other bills. All of this happened before the end of the federal fiscal year on Sept. 30.

4. This formal process has happened so rarely in recent years, it now seems positively quaint. Because 2014 is an election year, it’s a solid bet that Congress will pass a last-minute and short-term bill rolling most appropriations into one big law, known as an omnibus. The worst-case scenario happened last year, when the government shut down because legislators couldn’t compromise before the end of the fiscal year.

3. The agriculture appropriations bill provides for ag and nutrition programs and funding for the Food and Drug Administration. The farm community typically also follows those for interior and environment programs and for transportation programs. Always on the table are spending levels for agriculture research and trade promotion programs. This year’s debate is also likely to include discussion of policy riders related to environmental and energy programs.

2. Despite the focus on federal budgeting and appropriations, about 70 percent of all government outlays go to just four things: Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid, defense and paying interest on our nation’s debt.

And, at long last —

1. The most important thing for farmers and the agriculture community to know and share is that despite much blustering from ag policy critics, the entire budget of USDA made up just 4 percent of government spending in fiscal year 2014. Fully 70 percent of that total goes to domestic nutrition spending, not farm programs, conservation programs or ag research.

Melissa George Kessler is a writer, editor and organization development consultant working in agriculture.



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