Key Issues > Federal Budgeting
budget icon, source: GAO

Federal Budgeting

An increasingly constrained budget environment underscores the importance of managing federal agency budgets prudently, and developing strategies to address uncertainty in the federal budget process.

 

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Congress passes laws that authorize agencies to spend federal dollars (“incur an obligation”). Various laws provide mandatory budget authority, while appropriations acts provide discretionary budget authority. 

Mandatory budget authority

Discretionary budget authority

Provided by various laws

Provided by appropriations acts

Generally driven by eligibility rules and benefit formulas

Informed by agency budget estimates and congressional priorities

Supports programs such as Medicare, Social Security, and various veterans’ programs

Supports agency programs and operations such as most spending on defense, education, housing, and energy


Mandatory spending has increased from roughly 51 percent of total federal spending in fiscal year 1997 to 63 percent in 2017. According to the Congressional Budget Office, this growth is projected to continue for the next several decades.

Composition of Total Federal Spending

Composition of Total Federal Spending

Note: Net interest is primarily interest paid on debt held by the public. It is part of current outlays (spending) by the government and appears as an outlay in the budget.

As growth in mandatory spending crowds out resources for discretionary spending, careful management of agency budgets is even more vital to ensuring that agencies can continue to effectively achieve their missions and deliver services to the public.

Federal agencies also face considerable disruptions and ongoing uncertainty in the federal appropriations process, which creates additional challenges in managing their budgets.

  • Continuing resolutions. As of fiscal year 2019, in all but 4 of the last 43 years, Congress enacted continuing resolutions (CRs) to allow agencies to continue operations until final appropriations decisions are made after the start of the fiscal year. Operating under CRs has sometimes resulted in inefficiencies—such as delays in hiring and increased work from issuing multiple repetitive grants and contracts for the duration of each CR within the fiscal year. When operating under a CR for a prolonged period, agencies also faced additional challenges when their final budget for the year was enacted. These challenges included less time to hire new staff, delayed review of grant applications, and delayed implementation of programs.
  • Lapses in appropriations. When appropriations expire and neither new appropriations nor CRs are enacted, a funding gap may occur and portions of the government may shut down. In October 2013, the federal government partially shut down for 16 days and about 850,000 employees were furloughed for part of this time. This affected operations, grants, and contractors to varying degrees. However, agencies found it difficult to assess the long-term effects of the shutdown in isolation from other budgetary effects, such as sequestration and other reductions. More recently, the federal government partially shut down for 35 days in fiscal year 2019, which affected 800,000 employees at various federal agencies, according to the Congressional Budget Office.  About 300,000 of those employees were furloughed for part of this time and not permitted to work, while the others were designated to perform excepted functions and required to work during the shutdown. Neither furloughed nor excepted employees received a paycheck during the shutdown; however, Congress enacted legislation during the shutdown to authorize both groups to be compensated at their standard rates of pay following the end of the lapse of appropriations. This lapse in appropriations delayed about $18 billion in discretionary spending according to the Congressional Budget Office. 
  • Sequestration. Automatic, across-the-board spending reductions to both mandatory and discretionary spending known as sequestration were triggered in March 2013 after Congress and the President did not enact legislation to reduce the deficit by an additional $1.2 trillion. Agencies had only 7 months to absorb the cuts, resulting in a range of immediate and long-term effects. Since 2013, sequestration of mandatory spending has occurred each year, resulting in smaller and delayed direct payments to program beneficiaries, reduced services, and reduced tax credits, among other things. Under current law, sequestration of mandatory spending will continue through 2027. Another sequestration of discretionary spending may also occur in the future if spending caps are exceeded.

Duration and Number of Continuing Resolutions and Other Budget Disruptions by Fiscal Year

Duration and Number of Continuing Resolutions and Other Budget  Disruptions by Fiscal Year

Notes: Figure excludes continuing resolutions enacted in February 2007, April 2011, and March 2013 that provided funding for the remainder of the fiscal year.
aThe fifth CR, P.L. 108-185, amended the original CR with substantive provisions but did not extend the CR period.
bThe federal government partially shut down for 16 days in fiscal year 2014; 3 days in fiscal year 2018; and 35 days in fiscal year 2019 because of a lapse in appropriations.

  • Managing declining resources. Agencies must effectively manage the limited resources they have available in order to achieve their missions and deliver services to the public. GAO developed a framework that outlines three key themes to guide agency officials in managing declining resources. This framework includes examples that provide specific strategies for leading from the top, using data analytics to guide decision making, and reducing costs.

Overview of Framework for Examining Agencies' Efforts to Manage Declining Resources

Overview of Framework for Examining Agencies' Efforts to Manage Declining Resources

In conjunction with the annual appropriations process, agencies may have other mechanisms to collect and use funds.

  • Unobligated balances from multi-year and no-year accounts. Sometimes agencies may carry forward funds received in prior years that remain available to use for the same purpose in a future year. Reviewing these balances and answering key questions about them could provide insights into why a balance exists, what size balance is appropriate, and what opportunities (if any) for savings exist. Actively managing these balances could help agencies better respond to unexpected events, such as disruptions in funding.
  • Revolving funds. Agencies contribute to intragovernmental revolving funds to pay for business-like activities within or among federal agencies. Shared services—where agencies consolidate their service needs (such as payroll)—to save money or improve efficiency—may be supported through these types of funds. Following key operating principles, like clearly delineating roles and responsibilities and measuring the performance of the funds, can help agencies effectively manage these revolving funds. 
  • Budgeting for capital. Federally owned capital, such as buildings and ships, require significant amounts of funds to purchase and maintain. Alternative funding mechanisms—like operating leases and public-private partnerships—can help agencies meet their capital needs in the short term but may be a more expensive way to acquire capital over the long term. Changes to the government’s budgetary structure itself might provide a more consistent way to meet capital needs, while helping Congress and federal agencies make more prudent long-term fiscal decisions. Alternative budgetary structure options, such as a government-wide capital acquisition fund, could improve the transparency of costs and benefits.  
  • User fees. According to the President’s budget, the federal government collected over $300 billion in user fees in fiscal year 2017 for providing certain goods and services. For example, Congress has enacted authority for the government to charge fees for people to enter some national parks, and to collect and obligate fees to fund some regulatory activities. Well-designed user fees can help pay for programs while reducing taxpayer burden. Certain fee design options, such as maintaining a reserve when authorized, can help buffer against revenue instability (i.e., fluctuations in fee collections). An agency’s authority to collect and obligate fees, as well as its latitude to shape a fee’s design, depends on the specific legal authority under which the fee is collected. 
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