The Congressional Budget Act of 1974 requires that the President of the United States submit to Congress, on or before the first Monday in February of each year, a detailed budget request for the coming federal fiscal year, which begins on October 1. Prepared by the president and the president's Office of Management and Budget (OMB), the president's annual budget request performs three key functions in the annual federal budget process:
•The presidential budget request informs Congress of the president's vision of the three basic elements of U.S. fiscal policy: (1) how much money the government should spend on public needs and programs; (2) how much money the government should take in through taxes and other sources of revenue; and (3) how large a deficit or surplus will result -- simply the difference between money spent and money taken in.
•The presidential budget request tells Congress how much money the president believes should be spent on the various Cabinet-level federal functions, like defense, education, health, agriculture, etc. Within each function, the president's budget request must establish requested spending levels for smaller groups of related programs known as "budget accounts." For example, funding levels for federally subsidized student loans would be a budget account under the total proposed spending for the Department of Education.
•The presidential budget request can also be used to inform Congress of any changes in federal spending or tax policy the president intends to recommend.
While it is prepared annually, the president's budget request must anticipate program needs for five years in the future.
Spending the president does not have to request
Typically, about two-thirds of all annual federal spending goes to permanently enacted "entitlement" programs established by Congress, like Social Security and Medicare. The president does not have to request that entitlement programs be funded for the coming year. He or she can, however, use the presidential budget request to recommend new benefits or changes in the level of spending for specific entitlement programs. For example, President George W. Bush used a budget request to begin the establishment of the prescription drug benefit under the Medicare program.
Spending the president does have to request
The other one-third of annual federal spending goes to optional or "discretionary" programs or projects that must have their spending renewed or "reauthorized" by Congress every fiscal year. Just about all spending for defense programs is discretionary, as are programs like Small Business Administration (SBA) loans, space exploration and housing assistance grants. The president's budget request recommends funding levels for each discretionary program.
Congress considers the president's budget request
In the next phase of the annual budget process, the House and Senate Budget Committees will hold hearings on the president's budget request. In the hearings, administration officials -- sometimes even the secretaries of the Cabinet-level agencies -- are called to testify, and justify their specific budget requests. Based on the hearings and the president's budget request, the Budget Committees will prepare a draft of the congressional budget resolution. After being amended by the full House and Senate, the congressional budget resolution will go to a joint House-Senate conference committee, where any differences will be resolved. The conference report on the annual congressional budget resolution will then be debated and passed by both houses of Congress.