Bringing Home the Bacon: Navigating the Congressional Budget Process

Tags: , , , , ,

Categories: GSI Online LibraryTeaching Effectiveness Award Essays

by Kathryn Pearson, Political Science

Teaching Effectiveness Award Essay, 2002

The congressional budget process does not generate much enthusiasm among undergraduates studying the United States Congress. It is complicated and dry; even Members of Congress find its technical rules difficult to navigate. Yet understanding how Congress allocates federal dollars is critical to understanding congressional politics. Changes in budgeting over the last twenty years reflect increased partisanship, centralization, conflict with the executive branch, and use of non-traditional means of passing legislation in Congress. In my discussion sections, it became clear that students were not absorbing the readings or lectures outlining the process nor my repeated explanations of the differences between a budget resolution, an authorization bill, and an appropriations bill. The congressional budget process presented a greater challenge than did any other topic covered in the U.S. Congress class.

To engage students in the budget process, I asked them to play the role of a Legislative Assistant to a Member of Congress. Throughout the semester, I attempted to connect theories of Congress with real world congressional politics, e.g., starting each section by asking students to connect current events in Congress with the theories they learned, but this assignment went a step further. I asked students, designated “Legislative Assistants,” to each write a memo to their boss, Congresswoman Smith, a fictitious first-term member of Congress. I spoke to a legislative staffer for a member on the House Budget Committee for some tips on how to make this assignment similar to a memo that a congressional aide would write. Congresswoman Smith, I explained to students, is a first term member in the majority party facing a tough reelection race. As such, she needs to “bring home the bacon” to her district, but she hasn’t yet been through the budget process and needs some ideas about how to authorize and fund a district project. I asked students to choose Smith’s congressional district, her committees, and the specific pork-barrel project she sought. As a new member, Smith could not sit on the Budget Committee or the Appropriations Committee. The Legislative Assistants were to write a two-page memo to Congresswoman Smith recommending three specific strategies to obtain her project, including detailed instructions and the rationale justifying each approach.

I evaluated the success of the assignment by assessing students’ memos and participation in section discussion. Each Legislative Assistant described their boss’s district, the project they sought, and one of their strategies, which others evaluated and refined. Many identified traditional budget routes — introducing legislation to authorize a project by the appropriate authorizing committee and to have it funded by the appropriate appropriations bill — but many also presented non-traditional legislative strategies, including those more likely to yield results. Students offered helpful suggestions and raised important questions about the process. Their ideas showed that they understood party leaders’ incentives to help vulnerable members, the power of committee chairs, and the importance of the House Rules Committee in determining which amendments are allowed. For example, one Legislative Assistant explained to another that she should have her boss to go to the Rules Committee to get a waiver for an amendment so that another Member wouldn’t raise a point of order against her earmark. Another impressed upon her that she should ask her boss to persuade party leaders to help her, and another explained that he would try a “logroll” with another Legislative Assistant’s boss. They also demonstrated they understood the importance of local politics; one Legislative Assistant to a Member representing a coastal district sought funds for coastal cleanup. Following the discussion sections, I was confident that through students’ individual memos and collective efforts to refine their strategies, the fictitious Congresswoman Smith would have obtained a pork-barrel project in her district, and more important, students finally understood the congressional budget process.