Continuing Resolution: Budget Tool for Dysfunction
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Continuing Resolution: Budget Tool for Dysfunction

iStockphoto/The Fiscal Times

When lawmakers and the White House can’t get their act together to pass an annual budget and the spending bills necessary to keep the government  operating – essentially the norm for the past four years – a stop-gap spending measure, or “continuing resolution” (CR), is the indispensable fallback. 

Without enactment of a dozen spending bills or appropriations targeted to specific departments and agencies before the start of the fiscal year, all but the most essential parts of the government would need to shut down – as they did twice back in the mid-1990s. That’s unless Congress and the president agree on a temporary extension of funding authority.

It’s why the stakes are so high as Congress and President Obama brace for another dustup this month over a new CR to keep the government operating through the end of the current fiscal year, September 30.

Obama, House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, and Senate Republican Leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky have all said they expect an agreement to be reached and a government shutdown to be averted before a March 27 deadline. Still, House Republicans and Senate Democrats have different objectives in refashioning spending priorities in a new CR that must absorb the $85 billion of across-the-board spending cuts in defense and domestic programs mandated by sequestration.   

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Republicans are trying to protect the Pentagon and Dept. of Homeland Security from additional cuts that potentially could undermine military readiness and national security – while Democrats are seeking to protect Head Start and other educational and social programs from unduly harsh cuts. House GOP leaders have the added onus of placating some conservatives in their conference who favor even deeper spending cuts. 

This past Monday, House Republicans unveiled a new continuing resolution to keep the government operating that would spend at an annual rate of $982 billion – down from the $1 trillion originally agreed to by Congress and the White House last September, just before the start of fiscal 2013. While the resolution would not restore funding to the military lost under sequestration, it reflects rearranged priorities for military spending negotiated between Democrats and Republicans in the House and Senate late last year.

The House CR proposes adding $10.4 billion to the Pentagon’s operations and maintenance budget, to help maintain training, readiness and essential maintenance work. The measure also provides $2 billion in new funding for embassy security, a response to an attack on a U.S. diplomatic outpost in Benghazi, Libya, on Sept. 11, in which four Americans were killed. And it would provide $129 million to help the FBI avoid reducing staff.

Republicans would offset some of that with cuts elsewhere, such as extending a salary freeze for federal workers and members of Congress. The freeze would block a 0.5 percent raise for government employees scheduled to take effect in April.

The House is scheduled to vote on the CR on Thursday – then it will await the Senate Democrats’ action on a rival spending measure before the two sides try to reconcile differences.

In a perfect world, Congress’s two chambers would have agreed to a fiscal 2013 budget and enacted 12 appropriations bills allocating funds throughout the government bureaucracy. But political gridlock and legislative dysfunction have rendered that impossible – making repeated CRs to keep the government afloat unavoidable.

Only four times since 1975 has Congress passed all appropriation bills before the start of the fiscal year. During the budget wars between President Bill Clinton and a GOP-dominated Congress, government agencies were forced to suspend activities in late 1995 and again in early 1996 until a long-term budget deal was reached.

If any one of the appropriations bills is not passed, then the agencies and programs covered by a particular bill are potentially subject to shutdown. A CR often simply extends the funding levels and programs from the prior year, but there are instances where Congress includes special provisions – as the House plans to do this week in rearranging spending for the DOD and other agencies.

Sometimes Congress is close on an agreement, so a CR may only exist for a few days until a bill is passed and the president signs it. Sometimes the CR is extended multiple times. And sometimes, there’s a longer term CR that covers the rest of the fiscal year, which is the case again this year.

J.D. Foster, an economist at the conservative Heritage Foundation, noted this week, “When you’ve got a CR in effect this long, it’s not really a CR anymore … It’s essentially a heavily constrained budget where the broad presumption is minimal shifts from what’s happened before but still some changes.”

The chronic reliance on CRs has played havoc with government operations in terms of both day-to-day operations and the longer term. With managers unable to plan for spending beyond the CR’s time frame, they’ve often been forced to furlough workers, postpone contracts, and more.