How exactly do Congress people appropriate funds?

This is a question I’ve never found a satisfactory answer to, but first let’s see if I am asking the right question and have the right background information.

The longer a US Senator or Congressperson serves in his or her respective position, he or she gains seniority. When you have enough seniority, you get to chair committees and depending on the committee, that chairperson can wield a lot of power.

For example, former Alaska Senator Ted Stevens was the chairperson of the Senate Committee on Appropriations. That, apparently, gave him a lot of influence over other Senators for some reason. This is where I start to get lost. How did he manage to get so much money for Alaska; how does any chairperson appropriate funds?

ISTM that when voting for your Congresspeople and Senators, it might be best to put national politics aside and ask the question: does this person have the best angle to wind up on a powerful committee? Because regardless of if I’m a Democrat, Republican or otherwise, and regardless of if my representative is Democrat, Republican or otherwise, the longer said representative holds his or her position the more seniority he or she may accrue, the more influence/money can be appropriated for schools or roads or hospitals, etc. for his or her district. Is that right?

If it is, then back to the post’s subject: how exactly do they appropriate funds?

Well…first, the congressperson in question has his staff draft a bill. The bill might be about federal road funds, for instance. Part of the bill lays out the monetary allotments that will go to states, part discusses what the states have to do to get the money, etc. And part of the bill says, “Alaska gets 8.9 million dollars for a road that leads to Grizzly Wood Hills Development [where Ted Stevens’s biggest donor happens to have a house, let’s say].” The committee votes on it, it goes to the full Senate, which debates and then votes (after adding more pork, usually), and then the House goes through a similar process. After it becomes law, the money gets dispersed as per the wording in the bill.

No, tofergregg, it doesn’t. What happens next is that the authorization bill that was just passed becomes law. Each year, an appropriation bill is then raised in Appropriations Committee of the House of Representatives to specify how much of that money is actually going to be spent. The Senate Appropriations Committee raises a similar bill, both houses vote on their bills (with the Senate taking its lead from the House), and then the money is disbursed. The next year, a new appropriation must be passed. The Appropriations Committees therefore have enormous power, as they can completely block spending that was authorized in previous years.

Some spending is mandatory – that is, the authorizing legislation contains language that appropriates the funds up front. Social Security, for example, is mandatory. Most such laws are discretionary, which is what allows Congress to control the budget, although mandatory spending does dominate the budget in terms of dollars spent.

Just to clarify a point implied in Nametag’s post, the Chairman of the Appropriations Committee (and the chairmen of the subcommittees) have nearly total discretion whether to provide funds for the earmarks/pet projects/pork of other senators or representatives. In fact, other congressmen have to ask the Chairman to include their projects in the appropriations bills when they are being prepared; it is not as though members somehow put spending into these bills without the Chairman approving it. That’s why the Chairman is a very powerful position.

So the chairperson guides the discourse and the schedule of what gets into an appropriation bill and what gets left out. This means it’s a matter of being nice to the chairperson, or operating on some quid pro quo, in order for my representative to get money for his or her district? Thanks for the responses; this is one of my biggest questions about how money is approved for projects, and how representatives get their piece of the pie.

Presumably, all of the above, depending on who the chairman is. It’s a great amount of power, of course, and it depends on the person how they exercise that power, in exactly the same way that various Presidents exercise their power in different ways.