Knowing the Difference Can Make a Difference to Become an Advocate on Capitol Hill
Trying to explain how Congress funds the federal government requires a PhD in fiscal insanity. While the process, as explained on paper, seems to make sense, it’s anything but – which explains why we often read about potential government shutdowns at the end of every fiscal year.
For the purposes of this article, I will limit my comments to two important elements of the funding process: authorizations and appropriations. Both are essential to fund federal programs, but there is a tendency to think that they are one and the same. They are not.
I still recall when Congress approved legislation in 2000 to authorize the Assistance to Firefighters Grant Program. I believe the legislation authorized $100 million for the new program. Within hours of passage of the landmark legislation, organizations and trade publications were issuing press releases announcing $100 million in federal funding for the grant program. But not so fast.
Authorizing legislation is what the term implies: establishing authority to create a new program or making changes to existing programs. Most authorizing legislation sets timeframes. When the timeframe expires, Congress must approve reauthorization legislation to extend the life of the program. Since 1999, Congress reauthorized the AFG and SAFER programs three separate times, with the most recent reauthorization extending the program through the end of fiscal year (FY)2023.
Authorizing legislation also includes funding levels. Herein lies the confusion some people have with authorization and appropriation legislation. Funding levels in authorization legislation provide guidance for appropriations over the authorized timeframe. AFG and SAFER are each authorized at $750 million through FY2023. On the other hand, appropriations legislation provides specific funding for a given fiscal year; it’s the actual dollars deposited into the AFG/SAFER account.
Each year, Congress is expected to approve 12 appropriations measures that include discretionary funding for AFG, SAFER, and the U.S. Fire Administration, among other priorities. For FY2021, AFG and SAFER were funded at $360 million each, an increase over prior year appropriations. CFSI and many other fire service organizations work together every year to help secure these increases.
So why my rudimentary lesson in the federal budget process? Because these are things you need to know to become engaged in advocacy at the federal level. Time spent with members of Congress or their staff should be spent with you educating them. You do not want them educating you. Before entering their offices, be fully prepared. The establishment of new programs are addressed in authorization legislation, whereas changes to existing programs, such as AFG and SAFER, are addressed in reauthorization legislation. Both programs are authorized through 2023. On the other hand, annually funding for federal programs comes from appropriations legislation.
By being prepared, you can become a credible source of information for your member and their staff. And you will certainly help us in our mission.
Should you want additional information on the authorization and appropriations processes, please visit our website at: https://www.cfsi.org/legislation-advocacy/current-legislation/
Bill Webb has served as Executive Director of the Congressional Fire Services Institute since 1995. CFSI is a nonpartisan policy institute designed to enhance congressional awareness about the concerns and needs of the fire and emergency services. As executive director, he works closely with members of Congress and fire service leaders to sustain support on Capitol Hill for programs and legislation that benefit our nation’s fire and emergency services. Before joining CFSI, Webb worked for the Firefighter Combat Challenge as the project manager for the competition. He currently serves as Vice Chairman of the National Fallen Firefighters Foundation and is an honorary member of the Vienna Volunteer Fire Department, the Delaware Volunteer Firefighters’ Assocation and the International Association of Fire Fighters Local 36.