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Tufts OpenCourseware
Author: Kathleen Merrigan, Ph.D.

The Budget and Appropriations Processes

The budget, as Wildavsky writes, lies at the heart of the political process. Perhaps the "studying of budgeting" is just another expression for the "study of politics", yet one cannot study everything at once, and the vantage point offered by concentration on budgetary decisions offers a useful and much-neglected perspective from which to analyze the making of public policy." (p. 126 Aaron Wildavsky, the classic: The Politics of the Budgetary Process , 4th edition, Little, Brown and Company, 1984). In this class we will examine portions of the current federal budgets for EPA, USDA, and USAID. Budgets reveal a great deal about institutional design, government priorities, and organizational flexibility, as well as compelling evidence of incrementalism. We will also learn the important differences between the budget and appropriations process and between mandatory and discretionary spending.

Quote of the Day

Senator Byrd was first elected to the Senate in 1958. He has served West Virginia and the Senate for almost a half a century. Senator Byrd has voted on more Federal Budgets than any other sitting senator. He was chairman of the Senate Appropriations Committee when I was on the Senate staff and I vividly remember the late night conference committee meetings he led.

"This week the Senate is posed to vote to increase the statutory debt limit for the third time in just three years. The $800 billion increase we consider today follows a record $984 billion increase signed by President Bush in May 2003 and a $450 billion increase signed by President Bush in June 2002. In less than three years, under the Bush regime, the debt limit will have soared to the alarming level of $8.2 trillion with no end to the spending and borrowing in sight....

Since January 2001, the gross federal debt has increased $1.2 billion per day. It has increased $50 million every hour of every day. It has increased $837,000 every minute of every hour of every day. It has increased $14,000 every second of every minute of every hour of every day.

Today, every man, woman, and child in the United States owes more than $25,206 on the debt. In fiscal year 2004, U.S. taxpayers owed $322 billion in interest on the publicly held debt....

According to the Treasury Department, foreign holdings comprise half of our nation's privately held public debt, with much of that debt owed to countries like China and Korea and entities like OPEC and the Caribbean Banking Centers. To these foreign holders, American taxpayers paid $321 billion in interest payments last fiscal year on money borrowed to finance our government's operations....

.... It is great political rhetoric to claim that America doesn't have to ask the permission of other nations to defend itself or do anything else for that matter, but when we rely so heavily on other nations to help pay our way in the world, our haughty claims of independence are just so much bluff."

Byrd [WV], "Increasing the Public Debt Limit," Congressional Record S11416-S11417, Nov. 17, 2004.

Discussion Questions

How much money does the government spend annually? How much do we take in from tax revenues? Should the government be run as a business? What’s the difference between the U.S. debt and the budget deficit.


  • Congressional Research Service. Introduction to the Federal Budget Process, 2001.
  • Congressional Research Service. The Congressional Appropriations Process: An Introduction, 2001.
  • Congressional Research Service. The Congressional Budget Process: A Brief Overview, 12/1/00.
  • Aaron Wildavsky, Chaps. 1-2, The Politics of the Budgetary Process. Little Brown, 1984.
  • Press clippings distributed in class.


  • Office of Management and Budget -
    • The budgeting arm of the executive branch
    • Learn about the President's FY06 Budget and priorities
    • Access "budget overview" or the President's budget message
  • Congressional Budget Office -
    • The budgeting arm of the legislative branch
    • Provides a "Budget and Economic Outlook" for FY06-FY15
    • Recent Social Security Analyses
    • Historical budget data
    • Glossary of economic and budgetary terms
  • U.S. Senate Committee on Appropriations -
    • Explains the difference between authorizations and appropriations
    • Charts where budget money is allocated (discretionary, entitlement, interest)
    • Defines general appropriations bills
    • From here, you can find the members, subcommittees, etc. of this committee
  • U.S. House of Representatives Committee on Appropriations -
    • From here, you can find the members, subcommittees, etc. of this committee
    • Calendar schedule of House Appropriations Committee activities
  • USDA Office of Budget and Program Analysis -
    • 2005 and 2006 Budget Tables and Summaries of the USDA
  • USAID Policy: Budget and Strategic Planning -
    • Congressional Budget justification for bilateral foreign economic assistance appropriations
    • Strategic Plan for the State Dept.
    • Fiscal year Performance and Accountability Report
  • FDA Office of Financial Management -
    • FDA budgets and budget summaries from FY1999-FY2006
  • OMB Watch -
    • "OMB Watch is a nonprofit government watchdog organization located in Washington, DC, whose mission is to promote open government, accountability and citizen participation."
    • On the left-hand menu, click on "Project Areas: Federal Budget"
  • Food Research and Action Council (FRAC) -
    • NGO advocating public action about cuts in ag and nutrition programs
  • Center on Budget and Policy Priorities -
    • The Center is an NGO that "conducts research and analysis to inform public debates over proposed budget and tax policies and to help ensure that the needs of low-income families and individuals are considered in these debates, and develops policy options to alleviate poverty."
    • Front page highlights the Congressional budget debate.
  • Concord Coalition -
    • The Concord Coalition is a NGO "advocating fiscal responsibility while ensuring Social Security, Medicare, and Medicaid are secure for all generations."
    • Current debate series on social security reform.
  • U.S. Bureau of the Public Debt -
    • Click on "The Public Debt" tab at the upper far right of the screen. This leads to interesting information, fun facts, and FAQs about the public debt.
  • U.S. National Debt Clock -
    • Current (by-the-minute) national debt prominently displayed
    • Links to many published articles about national debt
  • National Association of State Budget Officers -
    • An association to promote the exchange of ideas between states
    • Overview of state budgeting and publications relating to state fiscal responsibilities.
  • Massachusetts Taxpayers Foundation -
    • A nationally recognized, independent, non-partisan organization focusing on state spending and tax policies and the Massachusetts economy, whose mission is to provide accurate, unbiased research with balanced, thoughtful recommendations that strengthen the state's finances and economy in order to foster the long-term well being of the Commonwealth.
    • Click on "Facts and Figures" for useful info on state taxes, expenditures, financial condition, wage and inflation rates.
  • CRS Report for Congress: A Brief Introduction to the Federal Budget Process -
    • By Robert Kieth
  • Columbia University U.S. Government Documents -
    • Includes a budget calendar

Assignment: Case Application

Current budget deliberationsselections from current budget proposals for EPA, USDA, USAID and the Commonwealth of Massachusetts.