Why it always feels like the government is about to shut down

Congress routinely uses stopgap bills to punt funding deadlines.

April 5, 2024, 4:13 PM

In the wee hours of the morning last weekend, Congress narrowly avoided a government shutdown when the Senate passed a $1.2 trillion annual government funding package. That vote happened on March 23, nearly six months into the fiscal year (which began on Oct. 1), and represented the fourth time in this funding cycle alone that Congress barely dodged what seemed at times like an inevitable government shutdown.

But we’ve seen this movie before. The use of short-term stopgap funding bills to kick shutdown deadlines down the road, often repeatedly, has in fact become a routine part of how Congress functions (or dysfunctions, depending on your point of view). These measures, known as continuing resolutions, or CRs, extend government funding beyond the start of a new fiscal year if Congress fails to pass some or all of its 12 annual spending bills by the Sept. 30 deadline. Congress hasn’t met this deadline since fiscal year 1997. Since then, anywhere from 2 to 21 CRs have been enacted each year.

The number of stopgap funding bills enacted this year (4) was actually pretty typical, and while the time it took for Congress to pass its final spending bill (174 days) was above average, it certainly wasn’t unprecedented. A closer look at the number and duration of every CR enacted over the last 25 years reveals just how commonplace these deadline extensions are, and how their use has evolved over time:

PHOTO: A chart showing the frequency and duration of short-term government funding extensions in each fiscal year since 1999.
A quarter century of government funding delays
Amina Brown for 538

Over this 25-year stretch, Congress has passed its final annual funding package* an average of 113 days into the corresponding fiscal year, around Jan. 21. And that number is trending upward: Over the last decade, the government operated under stopgap funding measures for an average of 134 days, or into mid-February. We only need to look back two years, to fiscal 2022, to find the last time CRs stretched into March, and back to fiscal 2017 for an even longer impasse, which wasn’t resolved until early May.

This means Congress may spend half of each year struggling to complete its most basic responsibility of funding the government, at the expense of other legislative priorities. And even though passing CRs staves off government shutdowns, operating under short-term funding has costly, wide-ranging impacts on federal operations. Funding uncertainty makes it difficult for agencies to plan and budget effectively, often forcing them to delay major projects — an issue of particular concern when it comes to military readiness.

Congress has long relied on continuing resolutions to buy itself time, but there’s also been a marked change in just how they were used starting around fiscal 2008:

From fiscal years 1999 through 2007, many of Congress’s dozen-odd annual funding bills were passed separately, with each bill receiving its own consideration and passage vote in the House and Senate. During this time span, the average number of appropriations bills or packages (containing multiple bills) passed annually was just under eight, reflecting the fact that Congress tended to pass a slate of several appropriations bills individually before pivoting to a package bundling the remainder of them. In 2002 and 2006, every single bill was passed individually — a scenario that would be considered nigh impossible by today’s standards.

Fiscal 2008 was the first year the appropriations process took on its current form, with 12 subcommittees of the House Appropriations Committee each responsible for one annual funding bill. For example, the Defense subcommittee is responsible for crafting legislation that funds the Defense Department and related agencies, shepherding it through debates and amendments both in the committee and on the floor — and so on for the other 11 bills.

If that process sounds time-consuming, that’s because it is, and lawmakers don’t seem to have the patience for it. Since 2008, Congress has instead relied on large appropriations packages, including eight “omnibus” measures that combined all 12 annual appropriations bills (and sometimes more) into one catch-all legislative package. It’s a practice much maligned by leaders and members in both parties and both chambers for forcing consideration of critical priorities into one behemoth bill largely negotiated by leadership behind closed doors, but it’s become Congress’s modus operandi.

And while some conservatives decried last month’s $1.2 trillion package as a “swamp omnibus,” fiscal 2024 was actually the first time in four years that Congress technically didn’t pass an omnibus — six of the 12 annual funding bills were passed a few weeks prior in a smaller package that received wide bipartisan support, thanks in part to House Speaker Mike Johnson’s so-called “laddered CR” that set separate funding deadlines for different sets of spending bills.

This technically fulfilled Johnson’s promise that he would “not allow end of year megabus spending packages to continue” under his leadership, but it effectively differed very little from previous years. Grouping spending bills into a couple of packages that allow members to support certain funding measures and oppose others, even within an omnibus, isn’t new to the congressional playbook. In 2019, then-President Donald Trump signed two separate spending packages that included all 12 funding bills and moved through each chamber of Congress on the same day.

That’s not to say there wasn’t something unusual about this year’s funding crisis, though. To start with the obvious, House Republicans’ struggles with their razor-thin majority and their own hardline conservative faction led to the historic ousting of House Speaker Kevin McCarthy after he cut a deal with Democrats to dodge the year’s first government shutdown threat back in September.

Like the stopgap funding deal that doomed McCarthy, last month’s funding package passed the House with more votes from the Democratic minority than votes from Johnson’s own party. Since a contingent of fiscal conservatives have frequently opposed spending packages for decades now, this alone isn’t too unusual — the Republican majority had to rely on Democratic votes to pass its 11-bill funding package in May 2017 too, during Trump’s first government funding cycle.

But the hardline faction of today may not be satisfied with simply lodging protest votes and demanding policy concessions within spending bills. With his right flank doubling down on calls for massive spending cuts (which, to be clear, would have no chance of becoming law) or bust, Johnson has had little choice but to work with Democrats to keep the government funded. His earlier passage of CRs with Democratic help prompted conservative revolts and paralyzed the House majority, and the political consequences of his latest deal are yet to be seen.

Strikingly, this year’s funding bill not only passed with fewer Republican than Democratic votes, but also with more than half of the Republican caucus voting against it (breaking the informal “Hastert rule” of House majority leadership). Johnson certainly isn’t the first embattled GOP speaker to struggle with a divided party, but this marks the first time in the 25 years we analyzed that any annual appropriations bill or package has passed without a majority of the majority’s support. It’s a stark indicator of the majority’s weakness and a referendum on the political feasibility of conservative hardliners’ demands. In driving Johnson into the arms of the Democrats, this contingent has gone from seemingly holding all the cards over its own leadership to dealing itself out of the game.


*In this analysis, the final funding package is either the last annual federal funding bill or package of bills passed by both chambers of Congress in a given fiscal year, or a year-long continuing resolution for any remaining funding bills. In some cases, the government continued to operate under a continuing resolution for up to a few weeks, until the president signed that bill into law.