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Policy Basics: Introduction to the Federal Budget Process

Center on Budget & Policy Priorities

No single piece of legislation establishes the annual federal budget. Rather, Congress makes spending and tax decisions through a variety of legislative actions in ways that have evolved over more than two centuries.

The Constitution makes clear that Congress holds the power of the purse, giving it authority “to lay and collect Taxes, Duties, Imposts and Excises,” and specifying that “No Money shall be drawn from the Treasury, but in Consequence of Appropriations made by law.” In short, federal taxing and spending requires legislation that is enacted into law.

Under the practices that have evolved, some tax and spending legislation is permanent — unless and until changed, which it often is. Other legislation covers multi-year periods, requiring periodic renewal. And many budget decisions are made year by year, through enactment of annual appropriations bills. In addition, the Congressional Budget Act of 1974 establishes an internal process — called a congressional budget resolution — for Congress to formulate and enforce an overall plan each year for acting on budget legislation, though Congress has increasingly chosen to ignore that process.

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