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Understanding the Current Budget Battles -- A Glossary

Federal Budget GLOSSARY

Appropriations Bill: An appropriations bill provides money for discretionary programs, and specifies how much money can be spent on a given program. Reviewed by the corresponding subcommittees of the Appropriations committees in both the House and Senate, appropriations bills must also be approved by the full House and Senate before being signed by the President.

Authorization Bill: An authorization bill gives a government agency the legal authority to fund and operate its programs, sets maximum funding levels, and includes policy guidelines. The bill must be adopted by the full House and Senate before being signed by the President. Government programs can be authorized on an annual, multi-year, or permanent basis. Specific amounts authorized are ceilings on the amounts that subsequently may be appropriated in an appropriations bill, but not as minimums; either the House or Senate may recommend appropriating lower amounts or nothing at all.

Budget resolution: A resolution passed by each chamber of Congress that serves as a framework for budget decisions. It sets overall spending limits but does not decide funding for specific programs.  Only the overall spending limit is mandated.

"Bush tax cuts": The “Bush tax cuts” refer to changes to the U.S. tax code passed during the presidency of George W. Bush that generally lowered tax rates and revised the nation’s taxation code. The Bush tax cuts were set to expire in 2010, but were renewed for 2 years as part of a larger tax and economic package (1). Because the tax cuts were in place for so many years, they began to feel permanent rather than temporary, and taxpayers and politicians raised a major outcry as their expiration date approached. Those who wanted to let the tax cuts expire as scheduled argued that the government needed the extra tax revenue in the face of its massive budget deficits. Those who wanted to extend the tax cuts or make them permanent argued that because taxes reduce economic growth and stifle entrepreneurship and incentives to work, effectively increasing taxes during a recession was a bad idea.

CBPP’s chart shows that the Bush-era tax cuts and the Iraq and Afghanistan wars account for almost half of the projected public debt in 2019 (measured as a share of the economy) if we continue current policies.

Continuing Resolution (CR): Legislation that permits a government agency to continue to operate at existing funding levels if a new appropriations bill to fund its operations has not been adopted by the start of the fiscal year (October 1st).

Debt: Accumulated total of annual deficits and surpluses over the years.

Deficit: When spending exceeds revenues in a given year.

Discretionary Funding: Funding for "discretionary" or "appropriated" programs fall under the jurisdiction of the House and Senate Appropriations Committees. Discretionary programs must have their funding renewed each year in order to continue operating. Almost all defense spending is discretionary, as are the budgets for K-12 education, health research, and housing, to name just a few examples. Altogether, discretionary programs make up about one-third of all federal spending.

Discretionary funding for human needs has already been cut by $1 trillion dollars, since last August (2011). 

Mandatory funding:  "Mandatory" programs, such as Social Security, Medicare, Medicaid, and certain other programs (including but not limited to food stamps, federal civilian and military retirement benefits, veterans' disability benefits, and unemployment insurance) are not controlled by annual appropriations. Anyone who applies for benefits and meets the eligibility requirements for that specific program is “entitled” to the benefits. Spending levels can fluctuate up or down depending on the number of people eligible for payment under these programs. Mandatory spending accounts for roughly two-thirds of the federal budget.

Reconciliation: Reconciliation is a process whereby legislators from the House and Senate meet and work out a compromise bill, which must then be approved by both the House and the Senate.

This year, in response to the Budget Control Act, sequestration was put in place to not go into effect until January 2013.  To trigger the reconciliation process, the House budget committee instructed six committees to produce legislation by a certain date that meets the mandatory spending cuts or tax targets.

The House-passed Budget Resolution instructed 6 different House c