A week after the longest government shutdown in American history was essentially put on pause with a three-week agreement, Congress is inching toward a new Feb. 15 deadline to reach a deal before some government funding runs out once again.
Much of the oxygen in this slow-moving train of a debate has been devoted to border security funding. But one unquestionable culprit has largely escaped the blame it deserves in helping to precipitate this failure of basic governing: our broken federal budget and appropriations process.
Gone are the days of so-called regular order established under the 1974 Congressional Budget Act, which outlines a general timeline for the president to submit a budget proposal to Congress, Congress to develop its own budget resolution and then subsequently pass appropriations bills.
Yearly appropriation bills have effectively been replaced or supplemented by stop-gap measures known as continuing resolutions — or CRs — which usually extend existing funding at the same or similar levels for a set period of time, often for several weeks or months.
According to a 2018 report from the U.S. Government Accountability Office, which detailed the uncertainties and challenges that can accompany the use of continuing resolutions, Congress has turned to CRs at some point in all but four of the past 40 years.
“Operating under a CR or the possibility of a shutdown, or both, creates uncertainty, complicates agency operations, and leads to inefficiencies,” read the report, which outlined how agencies working under a CR rather than a longer, more predictable funding bill can have problems with delayed contracts and grants, delayed hiring and repetitive work.
After decades of reliance on the CR as a funding crutch, we’re almost to the point that this process has become the new regular order. And that’s a big part of the equation when assessing why we find ourselves in this shutdown situation.
The weaponization of government shutdowns is in part a product of this short-sighted funding approach. Each CR expiration becomes a potential vehicle for shutdown politics, where the threat of a shutdown can be irresponsibly used in an attempt to advance a larger policy agenda or fight. If Congress has to pass a new CR multiple times in a year, legislators will invariably run into more of these situations.
This is not a new or unrecognized problem. Members of Congress have been warning about the overuse of continuing resolutions — and the resulting potential for shutdown — for some time.
“Continuing resolutions put our government on autopilot, funding outdated programs at rates that may not be appropriate and locking in the previous year’s priorities,” Republican Sen. Susan Collins said in 2016. “These measures also create uncertainty, delay the start of vital programs and end up costing the government more money.”
Last January, as we careened to an eventual three-day shutdown over immigration, independent Sen. Angus King criticized the repeated use of continuing resolutions.
“I’m sick of voting for CRs. This is no way to govern,” King. “I think we’ve got to close this escape hatch, stop voting for CRs and tell the leadership they’re going to have to make their deals, and then we’ll get it done.”
There is recognition across the political spectrum that our budget process needs work.
“Congress has ignored budget rules and deadlines, morphing the budget process into ad hoc funding decisions in response to self-imposed crises,” the conservative Heritage Foundation wrote in a 2018 policy document. “This has led to an ongoing cycle of continuing resolutions and omnibus appropriations bills that lack accountability, and fail to provide sufficient oversight of agency budgets and activities. This allows for unchecked spending and encourages the unfettered growth of federal government programs.”
A 2018 report from the liberal Center for American Progress similarly offered criticism of how the Congressional budget process has evolved.
“While the budget process at first worked largely as intended, adherence in Congress to the [Congressional Budget Act’s] processes and deadlines has eroded, and today, the budget process has been warped by brinkmanship and partisan posturing, as members of Congress increasingly use budget chokepoints to try to extract policy concessions from the other side,” the center’s authors wrote.
In the current stalemate over border security funding, a compromise has predictably proven elusive for lawmakers and the Trump White House thus far. Both sides will need to budge in order to find a resolution — unlikely but not impossible.
Beyond the current crisis, Congress should get back to basics in how it funds our government. Doing so would go far in lessening the frequency of shutdown politics. Ending this unfortunate reliance on stopgap funding should be an imperative for both parties, especially given the widespread recognition of our flawed process.