Continuing Resolutions, Continuing Crisis

If you think getting an immigration bill, say, or healthcare reform through a bitterly divided Congress is hard, try an annual budget. In mid-September, Congress, having been unable to agree on that budget, passed what is called a continuing resolution (CR), an instrument that, absent just such an agreed-upon budget, allows for the ongoing funding of federal agencies at current levels. The current CR expires on December 11, making provision for funding in that first part of FY 2015 at FY 2014 appropriations levels.

Though an agency such as the Department of Defense may not be funded with all the dotted eyes and crossed tees of formal legislation, the use of the CR means that the planes do not have to stop flying and soldiers shooting until Congress works out the details. What it can and often does mean, however, is that the Pentagon cannot plan with confidence for any growth in its budget, or generally any budgetary change at all beyond the possibility of reduced spending. For some programs, this uncertainty has proven more an inconvenience than a hobble, but large and small agencies alike find it difficult to plan realistically in the face of the uncertainty the use of the CR yields.

For instance, problems in securing realistic appropriations and full, multiyear funding with timely payment have hampered plans to build a permanent headquarters for the Department of Homeland Security in Washington. Even so critical a branch of government as Defense, as the Congressional Quarterly notes, is rendered less effective by the CR, since it relies on multiyear contracts with suppliers and spending can change dramatically within any given phase of the development of a weapons system—or, for that matter, a boots-on-the-ground operation. Unless Congress soon authorizes a yearlong CR, much less a budget, the Pentagon will not be able to make new procurements in 2015, at least not without much internal juggling.

The specter of government shutdown is bound up in the funding battle and the question of the CR as well. We saw as much in the 16-day hiatus of 2013, when, among other effects, certain benefit programs for military families were suspended and the national park system was forced to shut down.

Use of the continuing resolution is nothing new. Its use has increased over the course of the new century, but we are still a far cry from 2001, when 21 CRs were passed over a year that saw tremendous economic and political turmoil. Even the still more economically tumultuous year of 2008 saw only four CRs. The disparity can be explained in part by the fact that many of the 2001 CRs lasted for a single day, whereas, according to a 2009 GAO report, most CRs hold, on average, for about three months. The most recent CR before the present one lasted nearly six months in FY 2013, that notorious year of government shutdown.

Indeed, while the CR is common, agreeing on a yearlong budget is increasingly rare. Between 1985 and the present, only three years—1998, 1995, and 1997—have seen that concord.

Still, critics worry that reliance on the CR instead of an agreed-upon budget lends a provisional, ad hoc quality to the workings of government. Champions of a limited federal budget, however, argue that the CR denies free-spending legislators the wherewithal to do so. One thing seems certain, however: now that legislators have determined how to make political hay from it, the instrument is not likely to be shelved anytime soon.

The current CR makes allowance for some spending beyond the 2014 appropriation, including battling ISIS/ISIL in Syria and Iraq, combatting the spread of the Ebola virus, and supporting the government of Ukraine in its current crisis, now at a stalemate, with neighboring Russia. Stalemate is the operative word, and now that a single party is in control of Congress, there is some prospect for a little more smoothness in the appropriations process. We’ll all need to stay tuned to see what happens next—as soon as December 12, that is—with respect to the flow of federal dollars.

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