Behind every great movement and improvement in government lies…a fair share of process. The numbers and negotiations behind the federal budget and appropriations process are certainly no exception. But since this process is the way the housing programs and services we care about get funded, it’s important to understand how it works and where advocates can get involved. This Summer School post helps us understand just these things.

The budget for the coming fiscal year, which runs from October 1 to September 30, begins with the President sending a budget request to Congress on the first Monday of February. This proposal for the budget can be broken down into 3 basic categories: entitlement programs, discretionary programs, and taxes. The vast majority of housing programs are on the discretionary side of the budget. Unlike entitlement programs, which are expected to continue automatically from year to year, funding for discretionary programs must be renewed annually if those programs are to continue, so funding for housing programs can fluctuate from year to year.

The President’s request includes a monetary appropriation for each discretionary program (like Tenant Based Rental Assistance or the Public Housing Capital Fund) and sometimes includes suggestions for small policy changes within the programs. Major policy changes must go through a separate Congressional authorization process.

Congress then begins its own separate process to determine what the government will spend during the next fiscal year. After holding their own hearings with Cabinet officials who explain the details of the administration’s budget request, the House and Senate Budget Committees propose an overall framework of how to spend, tax, and allocate funds in the year to come. Rather than provide details on how funds will be spent, the Budget Committees set the maximum amount for spending areas and leave the details to the Appropriations Committees.  What does this mean for housing? Because the Budget Committees establish the ceiling for discretionary spending, and housing programs rely on discretionary spending, Budget Committees determine the amount of money with which the Appropriations Committee can even allocate to federal departments and programs.

Once the House and Senate determine a top line figure for discretionary spending, the Appropriations Committees step in and divvy up funding to their 12 subcommittees. The Transportation, HUD, and Related Agencies (T-HUD) subcommittees in the House and Senate then allocate that funding they receive towards individual federal housing programs. The subcommittees then must get approval for these appropriations bills from the committee and then the full House or Senate. The last hurdle is getting agreement between the House and Senate, which is not an easy task. While in some years, the House and Senate have similar ideas about what levels to fund housing programs, in other years the House and Senate program allocations are disparate. The two bodies of Congress hold a “conference” in which they debate and negotiate the differences between the House and Senate bills and compromise on a final version. This final agreement is then passed by both the House and Senate and signed into law by the President.

This entire process happens on Capitol Hill, but it greatly impacts the lives of low income individuals and families in every part of the country.  That’s why your input is so important. Lawmakers must hear from their constituents—that’s you!—that low income housing is of vital importance in their communities. When you see that funding for housing programs is largely determined by a multi-issue subcommittee that is but one of 12 such committees, you understand how stiff the competition can be for funding even in a flush budget year. And in tough economic times such as those we face today, the voices of advocates play an even more central role.

So, how can advocates get involved? Before the President even makes his request to Congress, you can contact federal housing agencies to make your suggestions for the issues and programs you believe should take priority in the upcoming fiscal year.

When the President’s request is released, you can contact your Members of Congress to comment on the proposal.

When the House and Senate begin drafting their budget resolutions, you can encourage your Representatives and Senators to set discretionary spending at a level that can continue crucial programs and services and can address existing and increasing needs.

And finally, if your Member of Congress sits on the T-HUD appropriations subcommittee, you can contact her or him to advocate for the preservation and continuation of housing programs in the appropriations process.

We hope this post helps you understand the federal budget just a little bit better. If you want to learn more, check out the Federal Budget and Appropriations page on the NLIHC website. You’ll find information about the current budget there, as well as links to a webinar that will take you through the FY12 budget process.