Urging our nation's leaders to end hunger
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Watching Our Spending: Hungry People and the U.S. Budget

May 2011

Ending hunger requires all of us to do our part. This includes our federal government, where---with the stroke of a pen---policies are made that redirect millions of dollars and affect millions of lives. Nutrition programs in the United States and poverty-focused development assistance overseas are among the key U.S. government programs that affect hungry people.

Each year Bread for the World tracks how such programs are faring as Congress develops the federal budget. The process of finalizing the budget can seem complicated--and it doesn’t always follow its own rules. But there are windows of opportunity where we can work for improvements for hungry people.

Here are the key steps in the process:

  • In early February, the president submits the administration’s budget for the next fiscal year to Congress.
  • Next, the House and Senate budget committees craft a congressional budget resolution–an outline of spending levels for broad categories. Both chambers must pass identical budget resolutions; however, the resolution doesn’t carry the force of law and it does not go to the president for his signature. Instead, the budget resolution gives guidance to appropriators. In recent years, Congress has frequently failed to pass a final budget resolution.
  • By mid-April, the action shifts to the appropriations committees. The House and Senate appropriations leaders establish spending limits for their subcommittees, which then work within these amounts to fund individual programs in their area (such as agriculture or foreign operations).
  • Next, the various spending bills must be passed within their subcommittees, by the full House and Senate appropriations committees, and by the entire House and Senate. Finally, the two chambers negotiate and approve a final version, which the president signs.  

Sometimes, Congress doesn’t finish this process on time, so no final budget is ready when the new fiscal year starts on October 1. If that happens, Congress has to pass a temporary extension to keep the government running, usually at the previous year’s funding levels. This is called a continuing resolution.

Within the budget, there are two types of spending: discretionary and mandatory. Discretionary spending is determined through the annual budget process. Funding for any discretionary program may be higher or lower than it was the year before. The Special Supplementary Nutrition Program for Women, Infants, and Children (WIC) and poverty-focused development assistance are important discretionary programs.

Mandatory spending is for programs that are funded by strict rules of eligibility. When such a program is created-–for example, SNAP (the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, formerly food stamps)—Congress decides who will be eligible. Everyone who meets the eligibility criteria can apply for benefits, so the budget expands when more people are participating. To spend less on SNAP, Congress cannot simply cut the budget for the coming year. Lawmakers must instead change the rules on who is eligible.

Mandatory programs important to hungry and poor people include SNAP, Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid, and child nutrition (school lunch) programs.

Hearing from constituents back home is one of the most important criteria for how a member of Congress decides what funding levels to support for various programs. Every step of the way, our voices as advocates can make a difference for hungry people.

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