Congress narrowly avoided a federal government shutdown at the end of September, passing a stop-gap measure that funds the government through Nov. 21. Credit: Andrew Harnik | AP

Thankfully, Congress passed and the president signed a stop-gap funding bill that keeps the government open through Nov. 21. But while that move last week narrowly and almost casually avoided a shutdown before funding was slated to lapse at the end of September, it also set the country up for another potential shutdown showdown two months down the road.

This ongoing uncertainty is yet another example of the continued failure of our elected representatives in Washington to return to a normal, responsible funding process.

As we lamented in February after the longest federal shutdown in U.S. history, these stop-gap measures known as continuing resolutions — or CRs — have all but replaced yearly appropriation bills and so-called “regular order.” This means that Congress often simply extends existing funding at the same or similar levels for a short period of time, rather than more fully assessing current funding needs and realities.

All four members of Maine’s congressional delegation voted last week in favor of the short-term funding bill, as they should have. But as Sen. Susan Collins and 1st District Rep. Chellie Pingree both correctly indicated to Maine Public, continually turning to continuing resolutions to fund the federal government is a flawed approach.

“It doesn’t reflect changing priorities,” Collins said. “And there are some programs that, perhaps, should be abolished, and there are others that need increases. There are others that should be funded at the current level or decreased.”

Collins and Pingree have each spent years on the Senate and House appropriations committees, respectively.

“It means that you are stuck with previous funding levels, previous language, and you can’t do the normal back and forth of, ‘This department needs more money. We don’t need so much here.’ You are stuck with the previous pattern,” Pingree said about the continuing resolution approach.

Given Congress’ long standing divergence from a regular budget process and the ongoing, toxic division between Democrats and Republicans in Washington, it was always going to be a heavy lift for House and Senate negotiators to reach an agreement on the 12 fiscal year funding bills that are still up in the air. Now with an impeachment inquiry in the mix, such an agreement seems even more unlikely.

While the path forward remains murky, the negative impact of government shutdowns is crystal clear. A bipartisan report from a Senate subcommittee found that the 54 days in which the federal government was shut down over the past five years ultimately cost taxpayers almost $4 billion. Most of that cost, $3.7 billion, was back pay to federal workers prohibited from doing their jobs during a shutdown. The report also attributed nearly $338 million of the shutdown costs to extra administrative work, lost revenue and late fees on interest payments.

“This report reaffirms what I’ve always said: Federal government shutdowns don’t save money, they actually cost taxpayers billions of dollars,” said Sen. Rob Portman of Ohio, the Republican chair of the subcommittee. “It’s time to end government shutdowns for good. I’ve introduced legislation to accomplish that goal and ensure we avoid disruptions that ultimately hurt taxpayers and our economy.”

Legislators have a responsibility not only to avoid costly government shutdowns, but to finally jettison the approach of budgeting by continuing resolution, which time and again lead the federal government to these self-created funding cliffs like the one now looming in November.

Impeachment is currently taking up a lot of the oxygen in our national debate and in the halls of Congress, and that’s no surprise given the weight of the subject. But it cannot be the only focus in the coming months, for Congress or for those of us covering and assessing its work. The impeachment process promises to be an action of historical consequence no matter the result, but it should not sidetrack the process of Congress fulfilling its fundamental responsibility to appropriate funds.