NVFC Hill Facts – Authorizations and Appropriations: What’s the Difference?

Authorization laws have two basic purposes. They establish, continue, or modify federal programs, and they are a prerequisite under House and Senate rules (and sometimes under statute) for the Congress to appropriate budget authority for programs.

Some authorization laws provide spending directly. In fact, well over half of federal spending now goes to programs for which the authorizing legislation itself creates budget authority. Such spending is referred to as direct, or mandatory, spending. It includes funding for most major entitlement programs. (Some entitlements are funded in annual appropriation acts, but the amounts provided are controlled by the authorization law that established the entitlement.) The authorization laws that provide direct spending are typically permanent, but some major direct spending programs, such as the Food Stamp program, require periodic renewal.

Discretionary spending, which is provided in the 13 appropriation acts, now makes up only about one-third of all federal expenditures. For discretionary spending, the role of the authorizing committees is to enact legislation that serves as the basis for operating a program and that provides guidance to the Appropriations Committees as to an appropriate level of funding for the program. That guidance typically is expressed in terms of an authorization of appropriations. Such authorizations are provided either as specific dollar amounts (definite authorizations) or “such sums as are necessary” (indefinite authorizations).

In addition, authorizations may be permanent and remain in effect until changed by the Congress, or they may cover only specific fiscal years. Authorizations that are limited in duration may be annual (pertaining to one fiscal year) or multi-year (pertaining to two, five, or any number of specific fiscal years). When such an authorization expires, the Congress may choose to extend the life of a program by passing legislation commonly referred to as a reauthorization. Unless the underlying law expressly prohibits it, the Congress may also extend a program simply by providing new appropriations. Appropriations made available for a program after its authorization has expired are called “unauthorized appropriations.”

Long-standing rules of the House allow a point of order to be raised against an appropriation that is unauthorized. During initial consideration of a bill in the House (which by precedent originates appropriation bills), unauthorized appropriations are sometimes dropped from the bill. However, the House Committee on Rules typically grants waivers for unauthorized appropriations that are contained in a conference agreement. In the Senate, there is a more limited prohibition against considering unauthorized appropriations.

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