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Good to Know: Continuing resolutions

Here’s why Congress can’t kick the habit.

- January 22, 2024
US Capitol. Continuing resolutions.
U.S. Capitol (cc) Richard Ricciardi

Congress and the president have enacted yet another stopgap spending bill to keep the U.S. government funded and open – while Congress struggles to write a dozen annual spending bills due last October 1. Why does Congress keep feeding the nation a steady diet of stopgap bills (known as continuing resolutions or “CRs”), rather than passing the annual spending bills on time? 

It’s Good to Know how CRs work, so we’ve got you covered. Here’s what you need to know about CRs and why Congress can’t kick the habit.  

What is a continuing resolution?

Federal budget law requires Congress and the president to enact appropriations bills to fund “discretionary” federal programs by the start of each fiscal year, or October 1. About a third of government spending is “discretionary,” including funding for most government agencies – from the Pentagon to the Environmental Protection Agency and far beyond. In contrast, “mandatory” (a.k.a. “entitlement”) spending, such as funds to pay Social Security benefits, does not require an annual vote; Congress and the president have previously mandated such benefits in federal law. If a U.S. citizen meets the eligibility requirements, the law obligates the government to pay your benefits. No additional congressional vote necessary. 

Legislators have met the October 1 deadline just four times since enactment of the Congressional Budget Act in 1974. And it’s been nearly three decades since Congress and the president enacted all the spending bills on time.

Since the early 1980s, if Congress and the president fail to enact one or more of the dozen discretionary appropriations bills by the deadline, affected federal programs must shut down – furloughing federal workers, aside from those deemed “excepted” from the rules. But Congress has an escape hatch. 

To avoid a government shutdown (which can be politically and economically disruptive to politicians, bureaucrats, and the public alike) and give lawmakers more time to negotiate annual spending bills, Congress and the president frequently enact short-term “continuing appropriations” resolutions. These CRs typically fund federal agencies at the previous year’s spending level for a specified period of time while Congress continues to craft the required spending bills. 

CRs can provide bandaid funding when Congress misses the October 1 start of the fiscal year or when a CR expires before Congress has completed its work on the main appropriations bills. Both happened this fiscal year. The first CR lasted from Oct. 1, 2023 through mid-November. When time ran out, Congress and the president kicked the can with a second CR that runs out for some governmental agencies on January 19, 2024, and the rest on February 2. With a third CR now enacted into law, Congress has until early March to get its appropriations homework done.  

How do CRs vary?

Congress watchers treat “CRs” as a single type of bill, but they can vary considerably. 

Most noticeably, CRs vary in duration. Lawmakers in late 2000 hold the (dubious) record for the most CRs in a single fiscal year: 21 stopgap bills enacted before finalizing spending for fiscal year 2001. But most of those 21 CRs lasted just a couple of days, and when totalled, provided stopgap funding for just 82 days. In contrast, lawmakers needed only two CRs for fiscal year 2013, but those measures added up to 365 days of temporary funding (otherwise known as a “full-year” CR). More generally, over the 50-year life of the Congressional Budget Act, CRs last longer today than they did decades ago.  

Fiscal year 2013 notwithstanding, lawmakers tend to be wary of full-year CRs. Limiting agency spending to the prior year’s appropriation level precludes lawmakers from changing spending targets and levels to respond to new issues or party priorities.  

CRs also vary by political difficulty. Some appropriations bills – such as the one dubbed “milcon” that funds veterans benefits and military construction projects – tend to be less controversial and thus more politically palatable to both parties. It’s not unusual for Congress to complete its work on time for the “milcon” bill, obviating the need for a CR for those programs. Other bills – such as “Labor/HHS” that covers the departments of Labor, Health and Human Services, and Education and a handful of other federal agencies – affect hot-button issues like health care and abortion, and thus spark partisan flares. Because it takes longer to work out bipartisan agreements on these flashpoints, when CRs are used, they often are covering such controversial discretionary programs. 

Not all continuing resolutions just reiterate prior fiscal year funding. Congress sometimes gives itself some wiggle room, adjusting the rate of spending in the stopgap measure for particular programs. Other times, Congress restricts agencies from starting new projects for the period covered by a CR. And since CRs are often the only legislative train leaving the station, unrelated measures (most recently, a measure to temporarily reauthorize Federal Aviation Administration programs) often hitch a ride.

Why does Congress need them?

No secret: Just like many of us, lawmakers and party leaders procrastinate. They are bad at meeting deadlines, even though Congress wrote the deadlines into law some 50 years ago. 

But of course, more than lawmakers’ executive function matters.

As Josh Ryan and Scott Mincoff demonstrate, partisan pressures on the regular legislative process encourage lawmakers to use the annual spending bills to advance their policy priorities. And as Molly Reynolds argues, the must-pass nature of those spending bills makes them irresistible targets for lawmakers, regardless of whether their proposals directly shape discretionary spending.  

In short, the forces that increase the frequency of stalemate – disagreements between and within parties, chambers, and branches – also drive delays in enacting appropriations bills. That said, as Nolan McCarty reminds us, CRs were also in vogue in the 1980s, so more than partisan polarization underlies lawmakers’ turn to stopgap lawmaking. 

In short, CRs offer a necessary escape valve to avoid blame for shutting down the government when regular spending bills are delayed or derailed.  

How is this time different?   

Congress and the president recently enacted a third CR for the current fiscal year, even though Speaker Mike Johnson (R-La.) averred in November 2023 that he was “done with short-term CRs.” But lawmakers made little progress on spending bills over the holiday break. And neither party – not even most House Republicans – wanted the bad publicity that comes from shutting down the government. That all but guaranteed a third CR.

Still, there’s a wrinkle in this year’s appropriations process that bears attention. Experts in the past have proposed numerous reforms to budget laws, including ways to reduce reliance on CRs. Most recently, in June 2023, Congress and the president enacted the Fiscal Responsibility Act, a bipartisan agreement that set overall discretionary spending caps for defense and domestic programs for the fiscal year that would begin October 1, 2023. If any temporary CRs were still in place on January 1, 2024, federal spending would be cut 1 percent across the board at the end of April (a move called a “sequester”). Congress and the president could avert the sequester by enacting full-year appropriations before April 30.

House GOP hardliners pushed both House speakers this Congress to lower the spending caps and slash billions from domestic programs. By gumming up the works on spending bills and forcing reliance on temporary CRs, hardliners increased the chances of a 1 percent cut. However, by buying more time with a third CR that runs into March, Congress will likely finally pass the required dozen spending bills (probably packaged into two big measures) and turn off the sequester.

Lawmakers tried to make reliance on temporary CRs more costly by risking across the board cuts to defense and domestic programs alike. But CRs remain so valuable politically that they’re likely here to stay.

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