Understanding the Federal Budget: A Primer

March 1, 2017

Quick links:   What is the Budget?    |    Revenues & Spending    |    The Process    |    Monitoring the Budget     |    Calendar of Key Dates

The federal budget helps determine how much money our libraries, schools, child care programs, health supports and many other services receive. Decisions on federal budget levels can, quite literally, mean the life or death of important programs in every community.

What is the Federal Budget?

The Federal Budget: A 411 Overview
from newshound

The Federal budget is:

  • a plan for how the Government spends your money.

    It is, in many ways, a document outlining our nation’s priorities. What activities are funded? How much does the government spend for defense, national parks, the FBI, Medicare, children’s health and food inspection?
  • a plan for how the Government pays for its activities.
    How much revenue does it raise through different kinds of taxes?
  • a plan for Government borrowing or repayment of borrowing from American and foreign investors.
  • a plan that affects the nation’s economy.

    Some types of spending on things like education and support for science and technology are done in the hope they will increase productivity and raise incomes in the future. Taxes, on the other hand, reduce incomes.
  • a plan that is affected by the nation’s economy.

    When the economy is doing well, people earn more and unemployment is low. When the reverse is true and unemployment is high, revenues decrease and deficits grow because the government borrows money to fill in revenue gaps. In this atmosphere, the government is focused on cutting spending to reduce deficits.

Revenues & Spending

The money that the Federal Government uses to pay its bills—its revenues or receipts—comes mostly from taxes. Most revenues (90 percent) come from three main sources: (1) individual income taxes, (2) corporate income taxes and (3) payroll taxes, including Social Security taxes, Medicare taxes, unemployment insurance taxes and Federal employee retirement payments.

Other sources include "excise taxes" on various products, including alcohol, tobacco, transportation fuels, and telephone services. (The Government earmarks some of these taxes to support certain activities—including highways and airports—and deposits others in the general fund.)  A smaller share comes from estate and gift taxes, customs duties and miscellaneous revenues, for example, Federal Reserve earnings, fines, penalties, and forfeitures.


    The government has two types of spending: discretionary and entitlement (or mandatory).

    • Discretionary or "approriated" spending accounts for approximately one-third of all federal spending and includes money for items ranging from health education programs to highway projects, child care, community programs and education. Congress decides how much to spend on these programs each year through the appropriations process. If the federal budget process equates to a household budget, the appropriations process equates to determing the amounts and writing the checks for household needs.
    • Entitlement, or mandatory, spending is not subject to the annual appropriations process. Instead, this spending cannot be changed and is authorized by law and varies depending on the number of people enrolled in the programs. Mandatory spending programs include Social Security, Medicare, food stamps, military retirement benefits, veterans' disability benefits, unemployment insurance and others.

    Although mandatory spending is not subject to the annual appropriations process, the President can request changes to entitlement programs in his budget proposal. For example, when President Bush proposed adding a prescription drug benefit to Medicare, he had to show a corresponding increase in Medicare costs in his budget, relative to what Medicare would otherwise be projected, by law, to cost. (Thanks to CBPP for this example.)

    Think of it this way: For discretionary programs, Congress and the President must act each year to provide spending authority. For mandatory programs, they may act to change the spending that current laws require.

    How Our Tax Dollars are Used. The three largest areas account for one-fifth of the federal budget:

    • Defense and security: The bulk of the spending in this category reflects the underlying costs of the Department of Defense and other security-related activities.
    • Social Security: This provides Social Security retirement benefits to retired workers (and their eligible dependents), survivors’ benefits to millions surviving children and spouses of deceased workers, and disability benefits to  disabled workers and their eligible dependents.
    • Medicare, Medicaid, and CHIP: Three health insurance programs — Medicare, Medicaid, and the Children’s Health Insurance Program (CHIP)—together accounted for about 20+ percent of the budget. Nearly two-thirds of this amount goes to Medicare, which provides health coverage to people who are over the age of 65 or have disabilities. The remainder of this category funds Medicaid and CHIP, which in the most recent data available in 2017, cover nearly four in ten children nationwide (providing health care or long-term care). Both Medicaid and CHIP require matching payments from the states.

    State and Local Budgets
    The federal budget is not the only budget that affects the economy or the American people; state and local budgets have a big impact on our lives and our communities. State and local governments are independent of the federal government and have their own sources of revenue (primarily taxes and borrowing). The federal government supplements these revenues with federal funding grants to the states.

    Unlike the federal government, states must balance their budgets each year, which means their spending must match their revenues, and they cannot carry a deficit.

    Understanding the Process

    In some ways, the government plans its budgets in much the same way as families do. The President and Congress determine how much money they expect the government to receive in each of the next several years, where it will come from, and how much to spend to reach their goals. (Unlike the Government though, a family can’t just decide to take money from its neighbors when it wants to spend more than it takes in.)

    1. The President’s Budget

    The law specifies that by the first Monday in February, the President submit to Congress his proposed federal budget for the next fiscal year, which begins October 1. (Note: the law does not require an outgoing President to transmit a budget, and it is impractical for an incoming President to complete a budget within a few days of taking office.)

    2. Action in Congress

    Congress first passes a “budget resolution”—a framework within which the Members will make their decisions about spending and taxes. It includes targets for total spending, total revenues, and the surplus or deficit as well as targets for the two types of spending: discretionary and mandatory.

    Appropriations process: once it has passed the budget resolution, Congress must then enact 13 separate appropriations bills to set specific funding levels for all the functions of the federal government—from agriculture and energy to Labor, Health and Human Services, education, etc. 

    Congress begins by examining the President’s budget in detail. The House Committee on Appropriations and the Senate Appropriations Committee divide their budgets among their committees and subcommittees, which hold hearings to finalize the proposals under their jurisdiction. For example, the House Ways and Means and the Senate Finance Committees hold hearings on the proposed changes to taxes. These committees and subcommittees must work within the budget resolution that Congress passed.

    As the committees and subcommittees finish their work, they "report out" their spending bills. Most years, the House committees report out their bills in May or June and the Senate committees report theirs in June or July. Most House bills are passed by early August, and the Senate passes most of its appropriations bills by mid-September.

    Conference Committee and Report. The House and Sentate then come together for conferences and hearings to resolve differences between the two bills, with September 30th as the deadline for final action.  The final 'conference report' is voted on by both chambers before it is sent to the President for his signature, enactment or veto.

    The goal is to finish the process by September 30, since the fiscal year starts on October 1.

    If Congress hasn't agreed on a final budget by this deadline, members of Congress must pass a continuing resolution (CR) in order to keep the federal government operating while they work to complete the appropriations process.

    Monitoring the Budget

    Once the President and Congress approve spending, the Government monitors the budget through:

    • agency program managers and budget officials, including the Inspectors General, or IGs;
    • the Office of Management and Budget;
    • congressional committees; and
    • the General Accounting Office, an auditing arm of Congress.

    This oversight is designed to ensure that agencies comply with legal limits on spending, and that they use budget authority only for the purposes intended; see that programs are operating consistently with legal requirements and existing policy; and ensure that programs are well managed and achieving the intended results.

    Budget Calendar at a Glance

    Early fall
    Agencies send initial budget requests to the Office of Management and Budget (OMB).

    OMB reviews, modifies, and sends back to agencies.

    Agencies make final appeals to OMB.

    OMB resolves appeals and assembles the final budget request.

    February to March
    President submits budget request to Congress.
    Administration and agency officials testify in support of the budget request.
    Appropriations subcommittees (House and Senate) hold hearings with agency heads and outside public witnesses.

    House and Senate adopt budget resolutions prepared by Budget Committees.
    Appropriations Committees in the House and Senate make allocations.

    House Appropriations Subcommittees prepare appropriations bills.
    Senate Appropriations Subcommittees revise the House-passed bills.

    House passes spending bills; Senate passes revised bills.

    House-Senate conference committees resolve differences and agree on final versions of spending bills.
    President signs or vetoes final bills.

    October 1
    Beginning of fiscal year.

    If necessary, Congress passes continuing resolution(s) to maintain funding for any agencies affected by appropriations bills that have not been passed and signed by the beginning of the fiscal year.




    Updated March 1, 2017.

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    The Federal budget is:

    a plan for how the Government spends your money.

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