On a recent visit to Washington, D.C. to work on client issues, I attended any number of meetings where we discussed Federal appropriations.  But before we get to an observation or two, here is a recap on the process for how Congress can choose to invest money into a flood risk management project with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers:

  • First, Congress must authorize the project, typically through the Water Resources Development Act, periodic legislation used for Congress to choose projects that are eligible to receive funding.  Due to the earmark ban, such an authorization must occur as a result of an administration recommendation, typically a Chief’s Report that follows a Corps study.
  • Second, a project needs a “new construction start.”  This is like a mini-authorization for a project to be advanced from authorization to appropriations.  In the past few years, Congress has instructed the administration to award a certain number of new starts, and then the administration does so in a work plan.
  • Finally, after authorization and a new start, the project can receive appropriations.  Those appropriations can come via a project-specific appropriation (as a result of an administration budget request) or funds allocated by the Corps in the annual work plan from funds that are not project-specific allocations.

While I always think of a calendar as a linear thing, this funding process can actually be circular, as I was reminded when I saw this drawing on a white board during my most recent visit:

Here’s how it might work:

  • In a recent typical year, Congress can’t pass a budget by October 1, so it passes a continuing resolution that keeps funding flowing to the Federal government at the same levels as the previous year.  That continuing resolution, or CR, might be for two-three months.  For this year, it expires on December 9.
  • Let’s assume that Congress does adopt a final budget for Fiscal Year (FY) 18 (running from Oct 1, 2017-Sept 30, 2018) by December 9.  In that budget Congress will allocate some money for specific Corps projects, and also provide non project-specific funds, with a requirement that the Corps submit a work plan back to Congress in a short period, say 60 days.  That would make the work plan due by February 9.
  • Interestingly, mid-February is also when the administration releases its draft budget for the next fiscal year.  So, in this example, during the months of December and January the Corps (with oversight from the Assistant Secretary of the Army and the Office of Management and Budget) will be determining how to spend the non project-specific money given to the administration for FY 18 at the same time that it is also developing the proposal for how to spend money in FY 19 that needs to go to Congress.
  • And then, the process starts all over again with the Corps working on FY19 non project-specific money in the work plan, while proposing a budget for FY20.

Now any number of things can mess up this cycle.  For example, when the Trump administration came into office, it had very little time to develop a budget and a work plan, and Congress didn’t get around to passing a budget until well into 2017.  Or, Congress could pass a budget by October 1, in which case the budget and the work plan will not be issued at the same time.  But under any of these scenarios, it is a little bit like Groundhog Day, in that the same processes happen over and over, each year, requiring one to think about the calendar more as a circle, and less as a linear series of events.

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