January 19, 2024

Continuing Resolutions Were Designed to Be Stopgap Measures — But Now We Average Five a Year

One of the most fundamental responsibilities of the federal government is to set and pass a budget every year, allocating funding towards the nation’s needs and priorities. The new fiscal year began on October 1, 2023, but Congress and the President failed to enact all 12 appropriation bills necessary to fund the government. Instead, lawmakers enacted a continuing resolution (CR) to temporarily fund federal agencies through November 17, 2023. After failing to enact a budget by that date, legislators used a “laddered” approach for a second stopgap measure, extending funding for agencies covered by four appropriation bills through January 19, 2024, and agencies from the remaining eight bills through February 2, 2024. What’s more, policymakers failed to enact a budget by January 19, 2024 as well, requiring a third CR. That CR will employ a “laddered” approach, too, with deadlines of March 1, 2024 for four appropriation bills and March 8, 2024 for the other eight bills.

While CRs can help avoid government shutdowns, they should be seen as stopgap measures and rarely used. However, CRs have become the norm over the past few decades. That unfortunate practice can lead to disruptions in the federal budget process, hinder lawmakers’ ability to properly and efficiently match resources with needs, and restrain agencies from carrying out their missions effectively.

CRs are consistently used by lawmakers to fund the government. Since fiscal year 1998, policymakers enacted 134 continuing resolutions — an average of about 5 per year. What’s more, CRs have been used to fund the federal government for increasingly longer periods of time. From 1998 through 2010, nearly one-third of the fiscal year, on average, was funded by a CR rather than through full-year appropriations. From 2011 through 2023, temporary measures accounted for an even larger share — 45 percent — of the year. CRs were even used to fund the entire fiscal year in 2007, 2011, and 2013.

Lawmakers have increasingly been using continuing resolutions to fund the government for longer periods

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While CRs help policymakers avoid costly government shutdowns, they undermine the budget process by potentially ignoring new resource needs and by introducing uncertainty to government agencies because of the limited duration of the funding. In fact, a 2018 study by the Government Accountability Office found that CRs can cause a number of inefficiencies and challenges for government agencies, such as:

  • Delayed contracts and grants, which could decrease the level of services provided and increase costs of administration
  • Delayed hiring, which could affect an agency’s ability to provide services in a timely manner
  • Added work, which can reduce productivity or force shorter-term contracts and grants to reflect the duration of the CR

To ensure that government agencies can operate effectively and efficiently, policymakers should focus on enacting full-year funding bills on time or consider reforms to the budget process that would prevent the issues associated with short-term funding through CRs. In addition, reforming the budget process to account for long-term outcomes is a key step in putting our nation on the path to fiscal sustainability.


Related: Finding Solutions: The Budget Process


Image credit: Anna Moneymaker / Getty Images

 

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