The NCJA advocates for effective criminal justice policy and adequate funding for state, local, and tribal justice assistance programs.

Federal Appropriations Process

The formal federal spending process consists of two sequential steps: authorization and appropriation.

While the power over appropriations is granted to Congress by the U.S. Constitution, the authorization-appropriation process is derived from House and Senate rules. The formal process consists of two sequential steps: (1) enactment of an authorization measure that may create or continue an agency, program, or activity as well as authorize the subsequent enactment of appropriations; and (2) enactment of appropriations to provide funds for the authorized agency, program, or activity.

These duties are carried out by division of labor. The Legislative Committees -- that is, most standing committees—have authorizing responsibilities, while the Appropriations Committees have jurisdiction over appropriations measures. 

Agencies and programs funded through the annual appropriations process, referred to as discretionary spending, generally follow this two-step process. Not all federal agencies and programs, however, are funded through this authorization-appropriations process. Funding for some agencies and programs is provided by the authorizing legislation, bypassing this two-step process. Such spending, referred to as direct (or mandatory) spending, currently constitutes about 55% of all federal spending. Some direct spending, mostly entitlement programs, is funded by permanent appropriations in the authorizing law. Other direct spending (referred to as appropriated entitlements), such as Medicaid, is funded in appropriations acts, but the amount appropriated is controlled by the existing authorizing statute.

More information tthe authorization-appropriations process can be found in the following Congressional Research Service guides: The Congressional Appropriations Process: An Introduction and Overview of the Authorization-Appropriations Process.

Type of Appropriations Measures

There are three types of appropriations measures: regular appropriations bills, continuing resolutions, and supplemental appropriations. Regular appropriations bills provide most of the funding that is provided in all appropriations measures for a fiscal year and must be enacted by October 1, the beginning of the fiscal year. If regular bills are not enacted by the beginning of the new fiscal year, Congress adopts continuing resolutions to continue funding, generally until regular bills are enacted. Supplemental appropriations bills provide additional appropriations to become available during a fiscal year.

Congress annually considers several appropriations measures, which provide discretionary funding for numerous activities—for example, national defense, education, and homeland security—as well as general government operations. Appropriations measures are under the jurisdiction of the House and Senate Appropriations Committees. Department of Justice spending bills are written by the House and Senate Appropriations Subcommittees on Justice, Science and Related Agencies.

Funding for DOJ programs are included in the Science-State-Justice-Commerce Appropriations bill in the House and the Commerce-Justice-Science Appropriations bill in the Senate.

Appropriations Timeline

The annual funding cycle begins early in the calendar year with the release of the President’s budget request to Congress in late January or early February.  Congress responds with its broad blueprint for spending outlined in the annual budget resolution advanced by the House and Senate Budget Committees.  The budget resolution sets the overall framework by which the House and Senate Appropriations Committees do their work.  The budget resolution sets a cap on overall discretionary spending for the coming fiscal year.  Although the resolution does not have the force of law, it must pass before the appropriators can advance their bills.

Once the budget resolution is passed (or, as in recent years, the House and Senate separately can “deem” a level of spending if a resolution cannot be agreed upon), the chairs of the 12 appropriations subcommittees, known as the “cardinals,” meet to divide the total discretionary funding available among the 12 separate subcommittees (each subcommittee handling different functions of government: agriculture; defense; energy and water development; financial services and general government; homeland security; interior and environment; labor, health and education; legislative branch; military construction and veterans affairs; state department and foreign aid; transportation and housing, and commerce, justice and science.)  Through the late winter and spring, the individual subcommittees hold hearings to help inform their funding decisions.

Once the allocations are set (which often differ between the House and Senate), the 12 subcommittees will draft and mark-up their bills, first in subcommittee and then in full committee, before taking them to the floor for debate by the full chamber.  Like all bills, appropriations bills must then be reconciled in conference committee before returning to both chambers for final passage before going to the President for signature.

This process is supposed to be completed by September 30, before the beginning of the new fiscal year on October 1. However, this deadline has not been met for most of the past decade.  If Congress fails to enact one or more of the 12 appropriations bills before October 1, members must pass one or more short-term continuing resolutions to extend funding for government programs until the final appropriations bills are signed into law.

Funding for the justice assistance grant programs has been on the decline since the peak in FY02, with a more precipitous drop the past five years as Congress has sought to reduce the federal deficit by reducing discretionary spending. In FY10, state and local justice assistance programs totaled about $3.4 billion. In FY16, total spending is about $2.1 billion, a cut of almost 40 percent. 

The Byrne Justice Assistance Grant (Byrne JAG) program has been cut by 32 percent since FY10 and about 60 percent since FY02. The COPS Hiring program has been cut by 73 percent since FY10, juvenile justice programs by 36 percent, and the State Criminal Alien Assistance Program (SCAAP) which reimburses state prisons and local jails for the cost of incarcerating illegal immigrants by 13 percent.