Appropriation Definition: Spending Bills in Congress

The U.S. House of Representatives chamber is seen December 8, 2008 in Washington, DC.
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The term appropriation is used to define any money designated by Congress for a specific purpose by a state or federal legislature. Examples of appropriation spending include money set aside every year for defense, national security and education. Appropriation spending represents more than a third of national spending every year, according to the Congressional Research Service.

In the U.S. Congress, all appropriations bills must originate in the House of Representatives, and they provide the legal authority needed to spend or obligate the U.S. Treasury. However, both the House and Senate have appropriation committees; they are responsible for designating how and when the federal government may spend money; this is called "controlling the purse strings."

Appropriations Bills

Each year, Congress must authorize about a dozen annual appropriations bills to jointly fund the entire federal government. These bills must be enacted prior to the start of the new fiscal year, which is October 1. Should Congress fail to meet this deadline, it must either authorize temporary, short-term funding or shut down the federal government.

Appropriations bills are necessary under the U.S. Constitution, which states: “No money shall be drawn from the Treasury, but in Consequence of Appropriations made by Law.” Appropriations bills are different than authorization bills, which establish or continue federal agencies and programs. They are also different than "earmarks," money that is set aside by members of Congress often times for pet projects in their home districts. 

List of Appropriation Committees

There are 12 appropriations committees in the House and Senate. They are:

  1. Agriculture, Rural Development, Food, and Drug Administration, and Related Agencies
  2. Commerce, Justice, Science, and Related Agencies
  3. Defense
  4. Energy and Water Development
  5. Financial Services and General Government
  6. Homeland Security
  7. Interior, Environment, and Related Agencies
  8. Labor, Health and Human Services, Education, and Related Agencies
  9. Legislative Branch
  10. Military Construction, Veterans Affairs, and Related Agencies
  11. State, Foreign Operations, and Related Programs
  12. Transportation, Housing and Urban Development, and Related Agencies

Breakdown of Appropriations Process

Critics of the appropriations process believe the system is broken because spending bills are being bundled into massive pieces of legislative called omnibus bills instead of being scrutinized individually.

Peter C. Hanson, a researcher for the Brookings Institution, wrote in 2015:

These packages may be thousands of pages long, include over a trillion dollars in spending, and are adopted with little debate or scrutiny. In fact, limiting scrutiny is the goal. Leaders count on end-of-session pressures and the fear of a government shutdown to allow adoption of the package with minimal debate. In their view, it’s the only way to push a budget through the gridlocked Senate floor.

The use of such omnibus legislation, Hanson said:

...prevents rank-and-file members from exercising genuine oversight over the budget. Unwise spending and policies are more likely to go uncontested. Funding is likely to be provided after the beginning of the fiscal year, forcing agencies to rely on temporary continuing resolutions that create waste and inefficiency. And, disruptive government shutdowns are larger and more likely.

There have been 18 government shutdowns in modern U.S. history.

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Gill, Kathy. "Appropriation Definition: Spending Bills in Congress." ThoughtCo, Aug. 26, 2020, Gill, Kathy. (2020, August 26). Appropriation Definition: Spending Bills in Congress. Retrieved from Gill, Kathy. "Appropriation Definition: Spending Bills in Congress." ThoughtCo. (accessed May 30, 2023).