This blog was co-authored by Fae Rabin and Amanda Guarino.

The First Five Years Fund (FFYF) is a committed federal advocacy organization dedicated to increasing our country’s investment in high-quality early learning and care. We believe that every child can be successful in school and in life when given the opportunity to access high-quality early childhood programs during the critical years of development, from birth through age five. Over the last 18 months, FFYF’s has advocated in support of passing the Child Care and Development Block Grant (CCDBG) Act of 2014 and the integration of early childhood education in the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA). In addition to identifying and actively working on reform and innovative approaches to increasing access through existing laws, FFYF also works diligently throughout the federal appropriations process to ensure that hard-fought legislative wins are funded.

Shortly after the 2016 State of the Union Address, the President presented Congress with a budget request for the upcoming fiscal year, Fiscal Year (FY) 2017. The President’s budget request for FY2017 prioritizes early learning, allocating nearly $20 billion across critical early care and learning programs. In some years, after receiving the President’s budget request, the House and Senate Budget Committees then draft separate Budget Resolutions that set the total amount of federal spending, which is referred to as the 302(a) allocation. The 302(a) allocation accounts for spending across the federal government. This process works in identical fashion in both the House and Senate. However, since the Senate 302(a) level for FY2017 was passed as part of a previous budget deal and the full House may not consider a Budget Resolution, the fiscal process could still continue to move forward through the work of the House and Senate Appropriations Committees.

The House and Senate Appropriations Committees are responsible for determining program-by-program funding levels. This is done through 12 separate appropriations bills, each generated by a specific Subcommittee, covering either individual or groupings of federal agencies. For example, the bill that covers early childhood education programs is the Labor, Health and Human Services (HHS), Education and Related Agencies Appropriations bill, and it covers the Departments of Labor, HHS, Education and a handful of small agencies like the Corporation for Public Broadcasting.

The House and Senate Chairmen of the Appropriations Committees divide the 302(a) allocation among the 12 Subcommittees. This allocation provides the total funding pool for each of the appropriations bills, known as the ‘302(b) allocation.’ In simple terms, the 302(a) allocation represents the size of the whole funding pie, while the individual Subcommittee’s 302(b) allocations are equivalent to the size of one of 12 slices of that pie (the pie is not divided equally.)

Armed with their 302(b) allocations, the various Subcommittees then divide that funding among the programs under their authority. This process is accompanied by multiple activities. The most visible are public hearings by the Subcommittees, where they invite the Secretaries of the various agencies and advocates to testify on their budget requests. Simultaneously, legislators from outside the Subcommittees submit requests for funding levels that they would like to see for certain programs. Also, Subcommittee staffers often meet with advocates of the programs to discuss the funding outlook.

In order to inform their decisions, FFYF engages with Congressional offices to demonstrate the need for increased funding for early learning programs with resources that highlight what can be accomplished when investments are made in early learning. In addition to equipping Congress with the data that supports early learning investments, it is important for House and Senate members to weigh in directly with Appropriations Subcommittee Chairmen and Ranking Members through member to member correspondence (referred to as “Dear Colleague” letters) on funding for certain programs. These letters can be an important advocacy tool as stakeholders can request that members sign on to these letters in support of early childhood programs. For instance, FFYF worked with advocates this year to make members aware of House and Senate Dear Colleague letters urging increased funding for early childhood programs like the Preschool Development Grants.

The Senate and House deadlines for members to submit their priorities concluded in March, but that doesn’t mean state or federal advocates aren’t continuing to make the case or that members can’t still articulate their support directly to their colleagues. Right now, in both the House and Senate, the Chairmen and Ranking Members of the Labor-HHS Appropriations Subcommittee are working together to decide upon funding priorities in order to produce their own individual spending bills. As part of this process, they are reviewing information that they have received from constituents and experts about how funding should be invested.

Once the Labor-HHS Appropriations bills have been drafted, the House and Senate Labor-HHS Subcommittees will then consider their respective bills for a vote. If their respective bills pass, they are then taken up by the full Appropriations Committee in the House or Senate, respectively, often with several amendments being considered to the underlying bills. Since this process works in identical fashion in both the House and Senate, it is not uncommon for the two chambers to have different 302(a)’s and 302(b)’s, with the resulting versions of the bills millions or billions of dollars apart. Even when the chambers work from similar allocation levels, differences often occur between the total funding levels for the many programs in each bill.

With so many bills and areas of possible disagreement between the House and Senate, it is not surprising that Congress has difficulty passing each appropriations bill in regular order. As the fiscal year ends, leadership in both chambers will often negotiate on passing all the bills together in one combined package, known as an Omnibus bill. On certain occasions, where less controversial bills have been passed into law, a bundle of the remaining appropriations bills will be bundled to finish funding work, and this package is known colloquially as a “Minibus.” The Omnibus bill approach allows for greater range of negotiation than any individual bill would and also makes a possible Presidential veto over a particular issue less likely.

Finally, if no agreement can be reached or if there simply isn’t enough time remaining in a fiscal year, Congress will rely on a Continuing Resolution (CR) which will likely fund the government at current levels. Some speculate that the upcoming elections and lame duck may result in a short or full-year CR. Regardless of the final form the appropriations bills take, the final step in enacting program funding consists of the President signing the bills or an Omnibus/Minibus bill. As with more traditional legislation, the President has the authority to veto appropriations bills or an Omnibus/Minibus bill, and Congress can then attempt to override the veto. A two-thirds vote is required in both chambers to overturn a veto.

The process is a long, complicated and uncertain. FFYF, along with its national and state advocate partners, have worked tirelessly year after year to make the strongest case possible to support federal programs that meet the education and care needs of children birth through age five. Congress has responded with increased money for many of these programs, but we can’t take our eye off the ball. We will continue to push this year and appreciate the help of our Congressional allies from both sides of the aisle and our partners across the country.