Continuing Resolutions: The New Norm?

Unless Congress  passes a continuing resolution in the next week, the federal government will shut down.

Sound familiar? It should. This is the ninth CR that Congress has had to pass this year to keep federal funds flowing to government agencies in the absence of a year-long budget. But this saga of stop-gap funding is not unique to the 112 th Congress.

It had  been 14 years since the House, the Senate and the president have all agreed on a bill to fund the government for an entire fiscal year. In the past 26 years, Congress and the president have agreed to a year-long budget only three times, in 1989, 1995 and 1997, according to a report from the nonpartisan Congressional Research Service.

Here’s how it is supposed to work, in theory.

The president submits his proposed budget to Congress in February. By the spring, both the House and Senate agree to their own version of the budget, which is then divided up into each committee.

The committees have the summer to figure out how to appropriate the funds allocated in the congressional budget. These subject-specific appropriations bills are then all supposed to pass through both chambers of Congress and be signed by the president before the fiscal year begins  Oct. 1.

“In recent decades, appropriations didn’t get done on time,” said Richard Kogan, a senior fellow at the nonpartisan Center on Budget and Policy Priorities. “That is a 150-year-old problem, but it’s gotten worse.”

“It’s not so much that a continuing resolution is a bad way of governing as much as confrontation without resolution is a bad form of governing,” Kogan added.

For the past 14 years Congress has rarely passed its own budget, let alone approve each committee’s appropriations bills. Instead both chambers sign off on a continuing resolution that allocates funds for a few months to hold them over until a full budget can be passed.

Those CRs have lasted anywhere from one  to 157 days and averaged about three months of funding, according to a 2009 Government Accountability Office report.

In 2001, the final year of the Clinton administration, Congress passed 21 short-term funding bills, more than in any other year in the past quarter of a century.

If it passes, the funding bill that is currently stalled in Congress will keep federal funds flowing through Nov. 18. If it does not, the government will shut down for the 18th time in modern history.