Recall the old “Schoolhouse Rock! – I’m Just a Bill” video of the lonely bill sitting on the steps of Capitol Hill waiting to get out of committee on its way to becoming a law? Obviously, it was not an appropriations bill.
The appropriation bill does not travel alone through the congressional process. Each of the 12 appropriations subcommittees in the House and Senate issue an important report that accompanies the bill.
The bill is the fully legally binding text that once enacted, directs the Treasury Department to provide funds for the various programs and accounts. It does contain language to give the agencies direction on the purpose of the funds or program. However, it is limited in detail.
The report is a tool each body of Congress uses to assert concerns or make specific directions regarding agency activities, prior policies and proposed polices, and to provide more details or instructions to the agency on how to spend the taxpayers' funds contained in the bill.
Annually, the Administration will submit its budget request to Congress, often referred to as the "President's budget request." Normally, Congress receives the document near the first Monday in February the exception is during Presidential transitions, when they arrive in mid to late April or even early May. This year, the President's budget initial framework arrived on March 16, with the details expected in May. The agencies begin the development of the budget request about nine months before it is sent to Congress.
The budget request is more than just a request for how much money an agency desires. It also describes general policies supporting the agency's funding request. For example, in fiscal year (FY) 2015, the Biomedical Advanced Research and Development Authority requested $79 million on its Broad Spectrum Antimicrobials program as part of a policy to combat antibiotic resistance.
The Administration will propose policy and funding levels in its budget request. Congress will review, hold hearings and listen to constituents and outside groups to dispose of the request in a manner it believes will support the best interests of the country. Each committee will develop the initial response to the budget request with funding levels and a report that communicates additional information to the agency or Administration.
The general assumption is that if Congress is silent on the proposed policy and provides funding, the agency is expected to move forward with the activity in the budget request. Thus, the budget request is a policy document provided to Congress and the reply is the appropriations bill and report. An appropriation bill must pass every year so it sets up an ongoing dialogue.
(In recent years, Congress has bundled bills together or passed an OMNIBUS bill that covers the funding of the entire government. And sometimes, it can pass a year-long Continuing Resolution to fund the government at current levels. Even then, committee reports are highly relevant and valuable means of influencing agency action.)
The report language is invaluable. The report language is extremely valuable. It is a direct communication from Congress to the agency. The development of the report provides constituents, organizations and companies an opportunity to educate members of Congress, and indirectly federal agencies, on the unintended consequence, overreach, support and the ability to re-frame existing or proposed program policies.
In my opinion, appropriations report language can be more powerful than earmarks of the past that merely provided a one-year directed increase of funding for a specific activity, while appropriations report language can shape, stop or re-frame a program in a manner that can impact the program for years, if not decades.
Is report language binding? Unlike the enacted bill language, report language is not statutory law, but it has a decisive impact on the agency and program. In my more than 32 years of working in either the agency, executive or legislative bodies of government, agencies normally worked to comply with the directions or address the criticism described in the appropriation report. Most career agency staff understand the consequences of ignoring report language. It can result in undesired oversight, public criticism, reduction of funds or reduced agency flexibility in future appropriation bills. Certainly, a highly charged political issue can result in a political appointee attempting to minimize the impact of report language; however, congressional appropriation members tend to have long memories. To protect the long-term power of their reports, they generally understand the value of following up with agencies that do not comply with the reports. Thus, I would assert that most agencies work to follow the full intent of report language included in appropriation reports.
Report language can be used to shape policy or impressions. If one desires to request report language, start early since the process begins in February and March. Missing the initial window results in heavier lifts and more difficulty getting the language included, as the opportunities decrease once the draft report begins taking shape and moving through the committee process. It is important to have a strategy to leverage agency involvement, authorization committees, and the administration and executive officials to increases the likelihood of success.
Anticipate pushback form other stakeholders and the agency, especially if re-shaping long-standing policy. It can take several years to fully achieve the desired result.
Report language can be used to play offense. In my experience, industry actors rarely consider using appropriation report language as strategy to play offense against future attacks. For example, if industry Z provides a valuable service to the economy but, for political reasons, a group of politicians decides the actions of one bad actor in industry Z makes a sympathetic victim, the politicians may then try to use an appropriations bill's report language to reshape policies that negatively impacts the entire industry. If the industry advanced report language that noted the industry's positive impact, it would have readymade supporters with a positive public record to make it more difficult for political victimization of the entire industry in lieu merely the single bad actor.
To develop effective report language, it requires experience to ensure the language moves the ball forward, is not considered an earmark and does not result in unintended consequences. Once, while on the Hill, a requestor, who was not happy with a federal policy, submitted report language that, if included, would have moved to codify a discretionary policy the requestor wanted changed. Language should have a solid and understandable justification with support from several congressional members.
Appropriation report language is a powerful tool, as it publically communicates congressional intent in a meaningful way to the public and agency. If shaping public policy to change, influence or prevent a proposed policy is desired, I recommend this tool be considered for any public policy strategy.