The Red Book : Principles of Federal Apporpriations Law

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Book Review: The Red Book

The GAO Red Book is compiled by the GAO and published by Government Training IncTM. Our publishing strategy is to provide an important reference document that is easy to use, suitable for margin notes, and with a type size that avoids the tedium of reading undersized fonts during research. All paper stock used meets the strict standards of the Sustainable Forestry Initiative®.

This book, originally compiled by the GAO in 1982 and regularly updated since, has as its primary focus on the decisions and opinions of the “accounting officers of the government”—the Comptroller General of the United States and his predecessors—as they relate to appropriated funds.

No changes have been made to the GAO compiled content.

Under the current administration and Congress, financial pressures are mounting – and will continue to do so in the future. For those who handle federal funds, finding ways to do more with less is essential.

The subtle rules on the availability of appropriations can block an otherwise well-reasoned management plan. These rules are difficult to understand and are not well known or publicized. Fortunately, there are clear precedents that you can follow to avoid reaching an impasse—and to avoid incurring personal financial liability for failure to comply.

A federal agency is a creature of law and can function only to the extent authorized by law. The Supreme Court has expressed what is perhaps the quintessential axiom of “appropriations law” as follows:

“The established rule is that the expenditure of public fundsis proper only when authorized by Congress, not that public funds may be expended unless prohibited by Congress.”United States v. MacCollom, 426 U.S. 317, 321 (1976). See also B-288266,Jan. 27, 2003.

Thus, the concept of “legal authority” is central to the spending of federal money. When we use the term “federal appropriations law” or “federal fiscal law,” we mean the body of law that governs the availability and use of federal funds.

Federal funds are made available for obligation and expenditure by means of appropriation acts (or occasionally by other legislation), and the subsequent administrative actions that release appropriations to the spending agencies. The use, or “availability,” of appropriations once enacted and released (that is, having me the requirements of the rules governing the purpose, amounts, manner, and timing of obligations and expenditures) is controlled by various authorities: the terms of the appropriation act itself; legislation, if any, authorizing the appropriation; the “organic” or “enabling” legislation, which prescribes a function or creates a program that the appropriation funds; general statutory provisions that allow or prohibit certain uses of appropriated funds; and general rules that have been developed largely through decisions of the Comptroller General and the courts. These sources, together with certain provisions of the Constitution of the United States, form the basis of “appropriations law”—an area where questions may arise in as many contexts as there are federal actions that involve spending money.


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