The appropriations process refers to the steps Congress takes from passing a budget resolution to setting the total federal allocations for education each year.

Once the House and Senate pass a budget resolution, which establishes a 302(a) spending allocation for each committee, including the Appropriations Committee, the Appropriations Committees in the House and Senate further divide their spending allocations among subcommittees. Currently, there are 12 Appropriations Subcommittees each in the House and Senate. These suballocations, called 302(b) suballocations, limit the total spending on each of the 12 appropriations bills and are enforced through points of order established in budget laws and the budget resolution. The 302(a) and 302(b) spending limits that Congress sets each year represent the two most crucial decision points in determining aggregate federal education funding for any given year.

In 2011, Congress passed and the president signed into law the Budget Control Act to increase the ceiling on the national debt. As part of that law, lawmakers also set annual limits on appropriations funding through 2021. Lawmakers must abide by these limits or any excess spending will be reduced proportionally through “sequestration,” across-the-board spending cuts. The appropriations limits included in the Budget Control Act make the 302(a) allocations in a budget resolution somewhat redundant, though lawmakers may adopt limits below those set in the Budget Control Act.

For fiscal year 2014, which begins on October 1, 2013, the House passed a budget resolution that set a 302(a) allocation of $966 billion. The Senate passed a budget resolution that set a 302(a) allocation at $1.058 trillion, close to President Obama’s proposed $1.057 trillion. The Budget Control Act, combined with the cuts required by the American Taxpayer Relief Act, sets a limit of $966 billion. For fiscal year 2015, the House passed a budget resolution that sets a 302(a) of $1.014 trillion, in line with the adjusted BCA limits under the Bipartisan Budget Act. The Senate does not plan to pass a resolution, but has pledged to use the same limit.

The Labor, Health and Human Services, Education, and Related Agencies Appropriations Subcommittee has jurisdiction over spending for the Department of Education. For fiscal year 2014, the 302(b) allocation for the subcommittee in the House was $121.8 billion. The Senate subcommittee 302(b) allocation was $165.6 billion. The Bipartisan Budget Act split the difference, setting the appropriation for Labor-HHS-Education at $156.8 billion.

Customarily, the House considers appropriations acts first and then passes them on to the Senate for consideration. During the fall, the House-Senate conference committees meet to resolve the differences and agree on final versions of the Subcommittee bills which include individual program funding levels for the upcoming fiscal year. Appropriations bills can be passed individually or they may be combined into an omnibus appropriations measure. Congress must pass appropriations bills to fund discretionary spending programs by October 1st for the federal government to continue operation. If Congress fails to pass appropriations bills by October 1st, however, it can provide interim funding through a continuing resolution (CR).

302(a) Allocation and Labor-HHS-Education 302(b) Suballocation ($ billions)

Fiscal Year
House 302(b)
Senate 302(b)
Note: Allocations exclude emergency funding and other upward adjustments.

*Figures reflect limits proposed in each chamber that were eventually bypassed. Enacted funding totaled $156.7 billion.

For fiscal years 2012, 2013, and 2014, the 302(a) figures reflect the appropriations limit in the 2011 Budget Control Act. However, the House adopted a budget resolution for 2012 with a total allocation of $1.019 trillion and for 2013 of $1.028 trillion.

Sources: Congressional Budget Resolutions; CBO; New America Foundation