Authorization / Authorization Act (

From the Congressional Glossary – Including Legislative and Budget Terms

Authorization / Authorization Act

Authorised Graffiti Area (Barcelona), by scalleja
Authorised Graffiti Area (Barcelona), by scalleja

Authorization – Provision in law that establishes or continues a program or agency and authorizes appropriations for it.

Basic, substantive legislation that establishes or continues the legal operation of a federal program or agency, either indefinitely or for a specific period of time, or which sanctions a particular type of obligation or expenditure. An authorization normally is a prerequisite for an appropriation or other kind of budget authority. Under the rules of both houses, the appropriation for a program or agency may not be considered until its authorization has been considered. An authorization also may limit the amount of budget authority to be provided or may authorize the appropriation of “such sums as may be necessary.”

An Authorization Act is a law that (1) establishes a program or agency and the terms and conditions under which it operates, and (2) authorizes the enactment of appropriations for that program or agency. Authorizing legislation, which is used to make authorization law, is one type of legislation that Congress commonly considers. Authorizing legislation may originate in either the House or the Senate, and may be considered at any time during the year. It can prescribe what an agency must do — or proscribe what it may not do — in the performance of its assigned responsibilities. It can give the agency a broad grant of authority and discretion, or define parameters, decision-making, and decisions in great detail.

Unless an authorization measure contains direct spending, which itself enables an agency to enter into obligations, authorizing legislation does not have budgetary impact. It authorizes discretionary spending, for which funding is provided subsequently in annual appropriations acts.

House rules do not expressly require authorizations. Instead, they bar unauthorized appropriations. The House may waive the rule against unauthorized appropriations by adopting a special rule before taking up an appropriations bill. The House rule barring unauthorized appropriations applies only against general appropriations measures. Under House precedents, a continuing appropriations measure is not considered to be a general appropriations bill, and it may thus fund unauthorized programs.

Senate rules also bar unauthorized appropriations, although many exceptions are allowed. Accordingly, the House rule is stricter than the Senate rule. House rules also prohibit the inclusion of appropriations in authorizing legislation. Senate rules do not contain this prohibition.


Communications and Technology Hearing on Oversight and Reauthorization of the FCC (7/25/2017)


An authorization is presumed to be permanent unless the authorizing law limits its duration. Permanent authorizations rarely specify amounts of money. Temporary authorizations usually do.

As a general matter, appropriations enacted into law when the authorizing measure has not been enacted may be spent by the agency. The agency also may spend appropriated amounts that exceed authorized levels.

An authorization of appropriations in a specific amount is intended to serve as a guideline or limit for the Appropriations Committees in drafting appropriations measures and for Congress in approving them. However, one regularly finds large differences between enacted authorized and appropriated amounts. A member or group of members advocating “full funding” of a program is often in favor of an appropriation matching an authorization. Moreover, Congress does not need to make an appropriation for an authorization in law if it chooses not to fund an activity.

The vehicle for policy decisions on a program of aid to state and local governments is normally an authorization bill.

From Congressional Procedure, Ch. 7.A.:

The budget is like a personal budget—your plan for how much money you expect to be earning, how much money you will spend and how you will spend it.

Authorizations may be thought of as decisions you might make that impact your budget, such as signing an apartment lease, buying an automobile, purchasing a home, or even having a child.

Appropriations are like payments you actually make under your budget, like paying the rent, utility bills, or buying groceries. You might have budgeted $300 for groceries, but ended up spending $350. Your appropriation is $350.

If you spend more than you bring in, you must borrow the difference. If you spend less, you have a surplus and may be able to invest it or save for a child’s education.

Also see


NASA Acting Administrator Statement on the NASA Authorization Act of 2017







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