Civics 101

“No money shall be drawn from the treasury, but in consequence of appropriations made by law” – Article I Section 9 of the Constitution of the United States


Sometimes it is good to remember some basics of government operation.  This may be a good time for review. 


NASA is a federal executive agency; the President is the head of the executive branch of the government.  But direction does not come from the President alone; it must be approved and funded by the legislative branch, Congress.  Neither the executive nor the legislative branches can do something that is against the Constitution; the Judicial branch of the government determines that boundary. 


NASA is currently operating under the “authorization” act of 2008 and the “appropriation” act of 2010.  Authorization acts spell out what the agency should be doing; appropriations acts provide the money.  Generally, NASA, like most federal agencies, is authorized to do more than there is money appropriated to do it with.


The current fiscal year is 2010; it started on October 1, 2009 and will end September 30, 2010.  Fiscal Year 2011 starts October 1, 2010.  The President of the United States sent his budget proposal for FY 2011 to the Congress on February 1, 2010 and that budget is under consideration by Congress at this time.


In a usual year, this would put the NASA financial/business office folks on track to be developing the 2012 budget request at this time.  From shortly after the President’s budget request is announced until Memorial Day, each Federal executive agency pulls together their wish list/budget proposal for the fiscal year after next.  So at the same time that each agency is operating under the current fiscal year appropriation and Congress considers the budget proposal for next fiscal year, work is started on the budget for the year after next.  Three different fiscal years are in play at one time. 


Every federal executive agency provides their budget request to the Office of Management and Budget and the President’s Executive Budget Office around the end of May.  Then the OMB puts together the entire puzzle: the entire federal budget plan for the second fiscal year in the future.  This is while the Congress is wrestling with modification or approval of the budget for the next fiscal year.  Both OMB and Congress have to deal with the big picture issues:  income from taxes, total government outlays, the deficit, etc.


Congress is supposed to pass a budget before the start of the new fiscal year, no later than September 30.  They do not always meet that deadline, but will pass a “continuing resolution” which allows the federal government to continue in operation.  These “continuing resolutions” generally allow spending at the level of the previous year (but not always) and generally have limited time affectivity – a few days to a couple of months (but not always).  Some years, Congress never completely passes a budget and portions of the federal government operate for a full year (or more) under continuing resolution.


Whether in a real appropriation bill or a continuing resolution, Congress sets the rules.  In every appropriations act there is a breakdown of how the money is to be spent.  No federal agency (NASA in our case) can ignore that breakdown, it is literally federal law.  Uninformed outsiders that recommend NASA executives move money from one account to another are actually recommending violation of federal law.  This is clearly not an option.  If any federal agency desires to move money from one account or program or project to another, that agency must go hat in hand to the appropriations committees of Congress to request an “op plan change”.  Sometimes Congress agrees and sometimes they don’t. 


So during the summer and fall, as Congress considers the budget request for the next fiscal year, OMB works on the budget request for the following year.  Generally about Thanksgiving the OMB provides a “passback” to each federal agency.  In essence they say ‘We know what you asked for; here is what you are going to get’.  From the end of November until the President’s budget request is formally presented to Congress (about Feb. 1) there is a period of time when agencies can try to negotiate with the OMB.  Details that perhaps didn’t mesh get worked out.  A narrative and detailed plan is developed.  But once the President’s budget request goes to Congress, internal debate in the Executive branch is done.  The President’s budget is our budget proposal and we are duty bound as Federal Executive branch employees to support it. 


National policy is made at one place in America:  1600 Pennsylvania Avenue.  That is as it should be.  So, as a federal executive agency, NASA does not make space policy.  The vast majority of NASA employees have nothing to do with the development of national space policy.  The NASA Administrator and a handful of senior agency officials can propose, debate, and participate in the discussion, but after the President decides, his policy is our policy.    That is the way our republic works.  Debate before Congress or in other public venues is good, proper, and what the Founding Fathers envisioned; the executive branch personnel are required to support the President’s proposal whenever they are speaking as part of their official duties. 


Last year, there was a significant policy debate within the Administration about America’s plans for human space flight.  The Administration commissioned a study, the U.S. Human Spaceflight Plans Committee (aka, the “Augustine committee”) – a group of experts who studied for many weeks what should the national space policy should be.  Their report was delivered to the Administration in October.  At Thanksgiving, when NASA expected to get its “passback” from OMB as usual, the OMB did not provide detailed information on human space flight since the policy was still under review.  The passback from OMB came just a few days before release of the President’s budget proposal to Congress on February 1. 


NASA is, a little out of sequence, putting together the details which result from the national space policy.  These details will be carefully reviewed to ensure that they are in accord with the overall national policies. 


National policy as proposed by the President is reviewed by the Congress which codifies it in an “authorization” act.


Congress, it should be noted, divides into two parts:  the authorizers and the appropriators.  The authorizers consider what the national policy should be (they review the recommendation by the President) and tell federal agencies what they are “authorized” to do.  A different set of the legislators deal with money and dole out “appropriations” from the national treasury.  A federal agency might be “authorized” to do many things, but federal agencies can only actually do things that money is “appropriated” for.   Authorizers do not have to pass a new “authorization” bill every year; appropriators must pass an appropriations bill every year (even it if is just a continuing resolution).


I hope this short, very simplified Civics lesson helps in understanding what is going on. 


Remember the basics:


(1)  National Policy is developed by the White House, generally with a lot of advice.

(2)  The President proposes policy and a budget to the Congress

(3)  The Congress agrees, modifies, or changes the policy and the budget

(4)  All Federal Executive agencies “execute” the plan approved by Congress.


Graduate level courses are available if you desire more detailed information.


14 thoughts on “Civics 101”

  1. Despite the various interests in the legislative house, I hope the President’s plan is adopted without modification. It is a good plan, which brings space exploration to a new reality. For NASA to be richer, structured and active space agency in the world, it is directed to the hopes of people around the globe, to get NASA’s biggest hits. I am a stranger crossing my fingers and wish good luck for NASA.

  2. History is repeating itself. NASA didnt get the Space Shuttle it wanted, it eventually got a compromise Shuttle based largely on Department of Defence requirements not NASA requirements and a 6 year gap between Apollo ending and Shuttle Starting. Fast Forward to 2010. NASA is not getting the Orion Ares system it wanted but a compromise system, whatever that is going to be, if any, and a gap of who knows how long, maybe more than 6 years.

    The OMB is on public record saying we dont need to go back to the Moon again not that we cant afford it. So who is really driving Space Policy. It appears to be the bean counters not the White House. I have seen this so often in business and experienced it myself in business where bean counters drive the agenda, or the leadership hide behind the bean counters. I see it only as a sign of weak leadership at the top not responsible leadership.

    Good luck to the fine NASA people over the next few months. I hope you all understand want is being done to NASA by this Administration at the White House because it isnt very pretty.

  3. Wayne, thanks for a great explanation of how NASA is impacted by the federal budgeting process. For us laymen, can you give an idea of how many accounts or lines that NASA has within the federal budget? That is, instead of merely having a single pot that contains the agency’s entire funding, how many pots are there? Or at least an order of magnitude (if it’s quite large).

  4. Wayne, thank-you for your insights into the complexity of authorization and appropriation. Must be quite a juggling act, trying to keep three years worth of budget considerations straight. I think engineering is simpler, or if not that, more straightforward.


  5. Its certainly US Civics 101 for Australians. NASA is still full steam ahead on Constellation until Congress say otherwise?? Or, as the authorised activities far exceed the budget allocation, there is effectively some discretion?? I note Constellation works have fallen out of NASA’s media coverage of its activities. That is an act of discretion. Constellation is proceeding at a minimum rate permitted by its FY10 appropriation??

    MSFC has had a quality failure. The latest edition of Marshal Star has passed off a photo George C Marshall in uniform as President Dwight Eisenhower. No doubt the editor responsible is burning the midnight oil swatting up on mid 20th Century US history to ensure these highly esteemed military leaders are never confused again.

  6. I’ve just book marked this so I can pass it onto friends who keep going on about how NASA should be “doing x y or z instead of flying shuttles” or “instead of building ARES I”, etc, etc. The amount of times I’ve tried to explain that NASA, as an entity have plenty of ideas and suggestions but many are ignored by Government just doesn’t bare thinking about.

    Thanks also for the Fiscal year explanation, I’m so used to the UK’s April to March fiscal year that I totally forgot that the USA uses different dates!

  7. Thanks NASA for inspiring me and my children to achieve engineering degrees. As a constant follower of NASA over the last 30 years, you have inspired my family to reach for our own stars.

    However, the agency has become too risk adverse in an industry that is inherently risky. As a result, it is no longer sustainable. When Russian Space agency greets their ships in the snow with an easy chair (literally) and a blow-up medical tent how can NASA justify millions for a fancy custom designed crew depart/debrief vehicle.

    It is time for a bow-out and an apology to the true NASA pioneers of the 50’s and 60’s for allowing the media infleunced congress to cause NASA to leave the effective exploration of space because it can no longer take risks (i.e. too expensive).

    Maybe america’s commercial companies can do the job.

  8. Thank God the vehicle registration process hasn’t caught up with the budget appropriation authorization process yet.

    Time for government to get out of the budgeting business & make a radical shift. Why not have the government buy a commercial budgeting services (CBOTS) & focus on vapor development programs instead?

  9. “…but after the President decides, his policy is our policy. That is the way our republic works. Debate before Congress or in other public venues is good, proper, and what the Founding Fathers envisioned…”

    Unfortunately, the Founding Fathers never envisioned that the nation they founded would eventually reach for the stars; in their time, the nation had yet to reach the Mississippi River.

    I realize that I’m singing to the choir here, but the unfortunate fact that the direction of our space exploration program can be changed at the whim of the occupant of the White House all but ensures that nothing meaningful will ever be accomplished. Build it up, tear it down. We’ve done that twice in my lifetime and yours, and neither of us has enough lifetime left to watch it happen again.

    Nixon would have LOVED to have been able to kill Kennedy’s plans…they were bitter political rivals and he lost to Kennedy in 1960. But with the war in Vietnam, the Civil Rights demonstrations, and the Cold War, he could ill afford to squelch a program that made Americans believe that capitalism was better than Communism and that we could accomplish anything.

    Until NASA is permitted to set its own goals solely based upon the requirements of science and not politics, the agency will meander from “goal” to “goal” without accomplishing anything meaningful. Oh, sure, something like Spirit and Opportunity will squeak through every now and again, but nothing which demands more than four years to accomplish, such as serious space exploration objectives, will ever see the light of day.

    Or the launching pad.

    So, you gave us a short civics lesson, now I’d like for you to give us a history lesson: exactly why and how did NASA end up under the direct control of the Executive branch of government…was it because it grew from the military? That’s my guess.

    Every year, the NASA administrator’s report to Congress should consist of the following items:

    (1)This is what we’re doing.
    (2)This is why we’re doing it.
    (3)This is what we’ve accomplished since last year.
    (4)This is how much money we need to accomplish our goals for next year.

    The rest of it is just so much folderol…

  10. This is a repeat. I could not tell if it was accepted yesterday. If it was received, please discard this one.

    Since this was entitled Civics 101 and summarizes how the present US government sort of works, I think it needs to be pointed out that the Constitution makes no mention in Article II (the Article defining the Executive branch) of any executive policy making role except perhaps implied in the role of treaty making. (In fact the word policy does not appear in the Constitution.) Even then, a 2/3 ratification vote is required to effect the treaty; effectively meaning that the role is a shared one. Additionally, Article II requires that the President take an oath to “faithfully execute the laws”. The current laws as passed by Congress and signed by this President require any change in the Constellation Program to be approved by Congress.

    An administration can, of course, write anything it wants to, call it administration policy, and insist that such “policy” guide the things its political operatives do, so long as it does not violate existing law. For instance, the previous administration wrote a Vision for Space Exploration which was their human space policy. (It did not have the Constellation Program specifically in it.) Congress later ratified it in legislation, though I don’t recall if they included the exact words. The Constellation Program was an implementation of that now national policy as approved by Congress.

    The President has the easier job of proposing policy because the President can control what finally goes out of the Executive branch as a policy proposal and a budget that implements it. Congress has a much more difficult time since it must convince majorities (or more) of roughly equal members to agree on any single policy. Congress, however, is the only Branch authorized by the Constitution to raise and appropriate money to implement anything the Federal Government can do. The language in the legislation is what establishes national policy and that language usually authorizes the applicable executive entity(s) to expand the implementation details in the form of specific regulations. It is in this sense that Congress is a co-equal member in establishing national policy.

    Jack Knight

  11. Mr. Hale, I’ve been trying to further my career in the engineering field, with hopes of ending that career at JSC, and since the economy has crashed, I’ve bee stuck working maintenace work at a small airport about 95 miles from Houston. At this very same airport, I get a constant reminder of my struggle to meet my goals in life and better my self, and family when NASA T-38s do flyovers every day! To me, it was a matter of time after the election of Barack Obama, that he’d kill George Bush’s plans to return Americans to the Moon, and then to Mars. As I read in a previous comment, Nixon would’ve loved to have done the same, but Kennedy was way too popular, especially after his death. But Obama doesn’t have that to deal with, as Bush was not well liked. Now, I’m not an expert on how the U.S. political machine works, and I’m sure there’s more to it than just a president saying “kill this” and it’s dead. But I have a bad feeling that under this administration, we won’t be going back to the Moon, and I’m just spinning my wheels trying to get into NASA, which I’m sure is a tough nut to crack in a GOOD economy! What say you?

  12. Now that the House has passed the Senate health care bill and its amendments, it provides a much improved atmosphere for a statement human space exploration. The Senate will surely have voted and passed the House amendments Bill before the President is due to speak in Florida on April 15.

    In my view US health care and human space exploration are linked in the mind of the President and many others – we can’t push out into the solar system while some are left behind and US budget is under excessive pressure. Thus, space exploration did not get a mention in the State of the Union Address because Congress had not passed health care reform!!

    While Australia has a more comprehensive health care system at less than half the cost per capita of the US healthcare industry, our private insurance sector might be able to learn something from the private health market that will evolve under the new laws.

    But a lesson the US still needs to learn, to maximise high paying jobs and world competitive industries and thus tax revenue to pay for space exploration, is not to load employee personal costs on to employers. The US almost lost ownership of all US car manufacturing plants and brands due to health and pension costs of past and present workers.

  13. Wayne,
    Big thanks for this very understandable explanation of the authorization/appropriation process. I watched many a budget hearings and testimonies on NASA TV, but I never really knew what happens before the NASA Administrator is cross-examined in front of the cameras.

  14. Being a Political Junkie, I was familiar with these government procedures. It seems that NASA is currently working in a little bit of a interesting position. Congress has not passed a new authorizing bill and the last bill included some strict language relative to what NASA could do with Constellation and Shuttle. Yet, NASA is proceeding to implement the POTUS plan by “phasing out” Constellation.

    I hope this all gets resolved soon so NASA has a good solid plan that motivates NASA employees and the public.

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