Frustration is high among lawmakers being asked to vote for yet another continuing resolution, the fifth of its kind for the current fiscal year that began on Oct. 1.
None of the 12 annual appropriations bills have been enacted, and the reliance on interim funding at prior-year levels leaves agencies operating on outdated, and in some cases lower, budgets that don’t reflect new priorities and needs identified over the course of the previous year.
“Governing by CR does immeasurable damage to our military and to every other aspect of the federal government,” House Appropriations ranking Democrat Nita M. Lowey of New York said last month as the chamber was preparing to vote for the fourth fiscal 2018 stopgap, which runs through this Thursday.
However, in terms of the number of stopgap bills and the duration they have covered, fiscal 2018 wouldn’t be considered an outlier — at least not yet.
Should it be signed into law, the fifth stopgap measure — introduced late Monday — would expire on March 23. At that point, lawmakers would be 174 days into fiscal 2018, with none of the 12 appropriations bills enacted on time. But the fact is veteran lawmakers like Lowey, who first entered the House in 1989, and even newer members such as those elected in the tea party wave of 2010 that ushered in GOP control, have learned to live with “governing by CR.”
Watch: David Hawkings’ Whiteboard — Continuing Resolutions
A modern trend
Congress has averaged roughly 5.5 CRs per year going back to fiscal 1998, according to Congressional Research Service figures analyzed by Roll Call. The high-water mark in the modern appropriations era is 21 CRs in one fiscal year — although each one averaged only about four days — in the final weeks of the Clinton administration. Congress actually wrapped up its spending work for the year before Christmas in 2000, however, after Clinton and Senate Appropriations Chairman Ted Stevens of Alaska struck a deal on fishing restrictions intended to protect the endangered Steller sea lion.
Since 2006, Congress has used temporary spending measures to fund all or part of government for more than 174 days on four occasions, including three full-year stopgaps.
In two of those instances, control of one or both chambers of Congress had flipped — after the midterm elections of 2006 and 2010 — and the incoming majority sought to buy time to write appropriations bills that were more reflective of their own priorities.
In 2006, Republicans had previously completed work on two fiscal 2007 bills ahead of the elections before Democrats cleaned up with a nine-bill CR in February 2007 for the remainder of the fiscal year. The fiscal 2011 CR enacted in April 2011 contained the text of the full-year Defense spending bill and a full-year CR for the remaining 11 bills.
In 2012, final decisions were put off until after the presidential election, with a wrap-up spending bill in March 2013 that contained the text of five full-year appropriations measures, while seven were extended out in a CR.
The number of days Congress has thus far operated under a CR in fiscal 2018, at least to date, is obviously smaller than those three full-year CRs and is in fact dwarfed by the previous fiscal year’s tally — 217 days of interim funding, spread over three CRs including one signed into law on Dec. 12, 2016, that stretched to April 28, 2017. In fiscal 2017, Congress was only able to enact the Military Construction-VA bill before Oct. 1, spurred by pressure to fund the emergency response to the Zika virus outbreak.
What separates this fiscal year’s dysfunction perhaps is that it would set a modern record for the number of days operating under a CR, without any of the regular appropriations bills enacted, under one-party control in Washington. In 2001, in the wake of the 9/11 terrorist attacks, Congress did not complete any of the bills on time but ended up spending a total of 102 days operating under eight CRs. In 2003-2005, Congress completed at least one regular spending bill on time each year and agencies never spent more than 123 days operating under a CR.
Watch: McConnell, Schumer Hopeful About Avoiding Shutdown
Jim Dyer, who spent a decade as GOP staff director for the House Appropriations Committee after the 1994 Republican revolution, said he thinks the current CR cycle explains a broader issue. To Dyer, leadership now sees must-pass spending legislation more as a way to provide time for authorizing committees to work out policy issues, than an interim patch for appropriators to finish their work.
“Now its based on when the authorization committees can get their work done. You don’t have to look any further than the debt ceiling, which is a Ways and Means Committee issue,” said Dyer, now a senior advisor with Baker Donelson.
Without the leverage of a stopgap, “all of this stuff would theoretically go off the board because there is no comity between the leadership about when or whether or how you would get these issues on the table,” Dyer said. “So you link them to a spending bill and you link them to the one thing that everyone professes they don’t want, that is a shutdown, and you say, ‘OK, the only hammer we have over your heads is the prospect of another shutdown.’”
Issues that are within the purview of authorizing committees have long stuck in the craw of appropriators trying to wrap up their business for the year, as Dyer and his former boss, the late Florida Rep. C.W. Bill Young used to regularly complain about. The fiscal 2018 process is no different.
However, as Dyer noted, “what is changed dramatically is the fact that the continuing resolution is no longer predicated on when those doing the appropriations bills can get their work done.”
Another problem is the lack of agreed-upon spending caps for appropriators to write their bills, which typically have been set much earlier in the fiscal year.
Case in point: late last year, GOP leaders pushed through a CR extending from Dec. 8 to Dec. 22, despite the fact that a deal on appropriations caps was nowhere to be seen. There was little hope of wrapping fiscal 2018 appropriations before the end of the year, and typically without anything keeping lawmakers in town they would pass a CR running past the holidays and go home for a lengthy break.
However, there was still a legislative Christmas present Republican leaders and the White House wanted to keep members around for to unwrap for their constituents: their long-sought tax code overhaul.