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On budgets and appropriations

If anyone thought passing a bill was as easy as a Saturday morning cartoon, one need only look at the budget and appropriations processes in Congress to realize just how complex legislation is in real time. Whether we’re talking about funding for libraries, student loans or other programs, fiscal decision-making is as puzzling as it gets, even to the most seasoned Washington insiders.

stack of gold coins sketch
The U.S. Senate is slated to take up the 2018 Budget Resolution this week

This week, the U.S. Senate is slated to take up the 2018 Budget Resolution, which provides a target framework for congressional spending. Meanwhile, the FY 2018 appropriations process is on hold until a temporary “continuing resolution” expires on December 8, as reported last month in District Dispatch. So, where does this leave direct library funding?

To understand how library – or any federal funding decisions are made, it is important to differentiate between budgets and appropriations. Appropriations are about the annual optional (discretionary) spending while budget resolutions address mandatory spending (entitlements). Appropriations bills contain the annual decisions made by Congress about how the federal government spends money on such things as Library Services and Technology Act, Innovative Approaches to Literacy, the Library of Congress or the Department of Education – all programs the federal government considers discretionary. Budget bills address mandatory spending such as Medicare and Social Security, which are considered entitlements.

Another important piece of the puzzle is that the budget resolution may contain “reconciliation instructions” directing congressional committees to find cuts in mandatory programs in order to reach spending targets. The House budget passed on October 5 included specific instructions to cut mandatory education spending by $211 billion – which will likely come, in part, from student loans programs such as Pell and Public Service Loan Forgiveness. Many library students utilize these popular loan programs and any cuts will likely affect affordability for higher education for some.

The Senate Budget will apparently not contain reconciliation instructions for specific committees, relying on broad targeted cuts. The Senate rules allow for unlimited amendments to its Budget Resolution, but limits debate to 20 hours. Once the 20 hours has expired, the Senate will move to vote on amendments in what is called a vote-a-rama that often goes late into the evening.

After the Senate passes its budget, as is expected, a conference committee will be needed to produce a final version of the budget that both chambers must pass – which may take months. The final reconciliation instructions may target student loan programs that impact library students, and ALA will continue to work to oppose such cuts.


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Kevin Maher

As of November 2018, District Dispatch is no longer being updated. It is now being archived for future use. Please visit for the latest news.

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