Who has the final say in Congress: authorizers or appropriators?

Capitol Hill bridge

It’s a question all of us wonky Washington folk think we know the answer to: What is the difference between authorizers and appropriators?

Typically, authorizers set long-term policy mandates and multiyear plans for maximum funding levels for agencies. Appropriators determine how much of the authorized funding to actually allot to the agency and can include policy “riders” that establish how funds can or can’t be used in that fiscal year.

But in the omnibus released yesterday, appropriators said “never mind” to that setup.

For example, under the five-year highway law (the FAST Act) a conference committee set a cap for fiscal year 2016 hazardous materials transportation program funding at $53 million. Yesterday’s omnibus funded those programs regulating movement of products from crude oil to fireworks at $55.6 million, above the FAST Act’s established cap.

I asked two Senate committees—the authorizers and the appropriators—for clarification on this front. Who gets the final say when the two voices conflict?

There was no response from the hazmat transportation authorizers, the Senate Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee. But the Senate Appropriations Committee was crystal clear in its response.

“Appropriations bills are what determine funding levels, so they take precedence even if they are higher than the authorized level,” Stephen Worley, a spokesman for the committee, told me via e-mail Dec. 16.

Congress has until Dec. 22 to pass its FY 2016 funding bill.