Spring in Washington: The start of Funding Season

U.S. Energy Secretary Jennifer Granholm shared priorities for the coming fiscal year when she testified last week before the Senate Environment and Natural Resources Committee. Ensuring the country is positioned to lead the global transition to a zero-emission economy while meeting its Paris climate commitments is our focus in of one of the traditional spring rites in Washington, the renewal of the annual federal budget cycle.

While many of us who’ve been policy advocates for years still tend to question the workings of this long, complicated process, it’s still important to understand how the federal government spends our tax dollars, and how nonprofit organizations like C2ES can help ensure those taxpayer dollars go toward addressing the most pressing needs.

The process starts when the president releases a budget request for the coming fiscal year. The president’s budget request (PBR) is a coordinated effort between the White House, federal agencies, and the Office of Management and Budget. It is supposed to be released in February but is often delayed. The document is directed at Congress and provides the executive branch’s recommendation for how much money the government should spend on individual federal programs, how much tax revenue it should collect, and how much of a deficit it should run. It is important to note that the PBR is just a request, it does not carry any binding authority unless Congress acts on it.

Once the PBR is unveiled, Congress responds by creating its own plan , the congressional budget resolution. Both chambers of Congress release versions that set the total level of funding that Congress can distribute among all government agencies and programs for the fiscal year. After the budget resolution is established, and total funding levels are determined for each appropriations subcommittee. These subcommittees draft 12 individual appropriation bills that detail how much money each federal agency and its programs will receive.

To develop each appropriations bill, members of the House and Senate meet with stakeholders, including constituents, community groups, non-profit organizations, and academia, to better understand priorities and how much federal support is needed. This is where advocates like C2ES have a chance to support federal funding and programs that bolster clean energy development and deployment.

This year, C2ES advocated for several priority programs supporting research, development, and demonstration for clean energy technologies within the Department of Energy (DOE). Specifically, C2ES supported a meaningful increase for DOE’s Office of Energy Efficiency and Renewable Energy which supports deployments or demonstrations for decarbonizing the electricity sector, industrial sector, agriculture sector, transportation, and buildings. We also urged increased support for programs that would increase hydrogen production, make biofuels more affordable, and invest in carbon capture innovation. All these programs have the potential to strengthen low- and zero-carbon technologies.

From there, it’s important to identify members of Congress who care about these specific priorities. To encourage their support for these programs, we submitted formal requests detailing why we were asking them to fund these programs at the necessary investment levels. The members of the Energy and Water Subcommittees of the U.S. House and Senate Appropriations Committees are pivotal decisionmakers for these programs, as they are solely responsible for drafting the subcommittee bill that includes the Department of Energy. As such, they are inundated by requests from stakeholders who want to offer input on the direction and size of these programs, including C2ES. A principal task for the staff responsible for appropriations is weighing those requests against the spending limits as determined by the budget resolution and each subcommittee’s respective budget allocation.

As part of that process, advocates work to meet with their members of Congress and staff to reinforce their formal requests. This is a great opportunity to have a back-and-forth with senators and representatives and allows members and staff to ask questions in real time. Both advocates and government officials benefit from these meetings.

By summertime, the Appropriation subcommittees have ideally taken member input into consideration and released text of spending bills. This exercise is followed by legislative hearings and mark ups, which is a process where members of the committee discuss and amend the bills in preparation for a vote on the full House or Senate floor. In most cases, each chamber of Congress passes legislation with different funding levels for federal agencies and programs. In this case, the two chambers name a conference committee to find a compromise on the differences between the versions. Once the conference approves a compromise bill, the House and Senate vote on final passage and then the president can sign it into law.

Unfortunately, Congress does not always pass appropriation bills by the end of the fiscal year on Sept. 30. When this happens, Congress typically passes a continuing resolution (CR) to continue funding the government at the previous fiscal year’s spending levels to avoid a government shutdown.

All in all, the annual budget appropriations process is lengthy and rigorous, and doing it well requires a lot of time and dedication from both stakeholders and Congress. However, federal spending is one of the most reliable and impactful exercises of priority setting and it is essential for advocates to engage in that process to ensure that the federal government’s spending priorities reflect opportunities for climate progress and clean energy. A unique, springtime ritual in Washington, engaging in the appropriations process is a must for organizations and individuals who feel strongly about the priorities we set as a country.