Budgeting in Congress is a process – and a history – of missing deadlines, busting caps, and growing instability. No matter what caused these missed deadlines, the “solution” is often a continuing resolution. Political wills to avoid government shutdowns and sovereign debt crises run strong, and as such, any measure that delays decisions and responsibility often takes hold. In their nearly 150 years as a part of the budgeting toolkit, continuing resolutions have grown from minor measures – of relatively short duration and little scope – designed to plug small budgetary holes, into sweeping, grand measures, often funding the government for an entire year.
Each year, our government spends something around $3.5 trillion to fund everything from national defense, crop insurance, and wild horse management, to Social Security, Medicare, and Medicaid payments. Only about a third of that amount is regularly voted on – the discretionary spending. Most routine operations of federal departments and agencies are funded each fiscal year through the enactment of 12 regular appropriations bills, which must be enacted by October 1 (the beginning of the new fiscal year).
In recent years, final action on most regular appropriations bills has often been delayed. To address this problem and avoid shutdown, Congress passes “continuing resolutions,” extending funding for affected departments and agencies until the regular bills can become law. While CRs date from at least the late 1870s, they have been an increasingly regular part of the annual appropriations process. In fact, with the exception of three fiscal years (1989, 1995, and 1997), at least one CR has been enacted for each year since FY1955.
The Problem: When You Give an Inch…
Over the past 40 years, the nature, scope, and duration of CRs has also greatly expanded. Until the early 1970s, continuing resolutions were quite limited: used to provide interim funding at a minimum level, and rarely contained provisions unrelated to the interim funding. From the early 1970s through 1987, however, CRs took on new roles and responsibilities. They became comprehensive measures, providing funding in lieu of one or more regular appropriations bills, often for the duration of the fiscal year, and sometimes containing other substantive legislation. Conflicts between the President and Congress over major budget priorities in the early 1970s, triggered largely by rapidly increasing deficits, caused many regular appropriations acts to miss their deadlines. A 1980 Department of Justice opinion relating to the Antideficiency Act prohibited agencies from continuing all but the most minimal activity when funding is unavailable, which only further pushed CRs to become viewed as “must-pass” measures. These trends reached their zenith in 1987 and 1988, following a period of persistently high deficits and sustained conflict over how to deal with them. The CRs for those two years were effectively omnibus appropriations. Omnibus appropriations are bills that usually include all regular appropriations acts for each fiscal year, as well as a diverse selection of other legislation Congress wishes to pass.
A series of deficit reduction agreements struck by Congress and the President between 1989 and 1995 introduced multiannual stability into the budget. This largely pushed CRs out of the limelight, and their growth in scope and usage stopped. Major budgetary strife resumed in 1995 with a dispute between President Bill Clinton and Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich over domestic spending cuts in the budget for FY1996. When Clinton refused to accede cuts in Medicare, Medicaid, and other non-defense spending for the 1996 budget, Gingrich threatened to prevent a vote on increasing the federal government’s debt ceiling, which would have put the U.S. in a precarious position of defaulting on its outstanding debt. While a continuing resolution bill allowed the government to keep running temporarily, agreement wasn’t reached before it expired, causing two partial government shutdowns. The first lasted for five days, and the second, for twenty-one. Rather than resolving the conflicts with a CR, Congress instead created an omnibus appropriations measure for FY1996. This began what is now a persistent trend of reliance on omnibus legislation. Since FY1997, conflicts over regular appropriations bills have been resolved in omnibus appropriations measures rather than full-year CRs in all but two years.
The Problem Mutates: Costs of Cop-Outs
This change in the type of legislative vehicle from full-year continuing resolutions to omnibus appropriations measures crafted during the conference stage of the legislative process, was based on a number of political and procedural considerations. Combining uncompleted appropriations bills, or even including those that had received no floor consideration at all, into a single conference report, made it possible to avoid floor consideration of controversial or derailing floor amendments to regular appropriations bills. Creating an omnibus appropriations bill at the conference stage could also be used to expedite completion of the outstanding regular bills because it reduces the number of votes and the number of opportunities for a presidential veto.
Where Do We Go Now?
The evolution in fiscal policymaking and debate has itself spawned an evolution of sorts. The instability and political turmoil associated with enacting many short CRs led to increased usage of longer CRs, but this, in turn, led lawmakers to use omnibus legislation as a further catchall, kitchen-sink funding mechanism. By combining the benefits they perceive in CRs with other legislation and congressional desires, lawmakers can, in many ways, defray real political responsibility until the very end of a Congressional session, and have it all staked on one vote to boot. With the growing use of year-end omnibus legislation, all the smaller votes Congress takes throughout the session are quite minimized in impact, substituted by the one, all-or-nothing vote that will inevitably happen when a budget cannot be agreed upon, and Congress must act to prevent a shutdown. Significant reform of these “govern-by-crisis” legislative vehicles might introduce more responsibility to the system, and anyone concerned about the fiscal course our lawmakers are charting should pay extra heed to impact that these seemingly minor procedures and rules have on our course.