Congress rarely finishes its spending bills by the start of the fiscal year, which begins in October. To reform, it should realign the fiscal year with the calendar year. (Image: Taweesak Chansawatwirot/Pixabay)

As we near the end of 2021, it’s worth remembering that it’s been more than two months since the start of the Federal Government’s fiscal year 2022. Congress has an incredibly elaborate budget process, and the upshot of it is that by the end of each September, the House and Senate should have enacted 12 separate appropriations bills providing funding for different government activities. On October 1, if a government agency (with limited exceptions) has not received funding from Congress, it must halt its activities until the Legislative Branch passes an appropriations bill for it.

We’re just after Thanksgiving, and Congress did not enact any of its regular appropriations bills by September 30. Yet the government has not closed down, since the House and Senate enacted a continuing resolution prior to the end of fiscal year 2021. One of our previous blog posts contains a basic explanation of what a continuing resolution is:

Continuing resolutions differ from normal appropriation bills in a few significant ways. One important distinction is the duration each is in force. Normal appropriation bills usually last for the entire fiscal year. CRs, however, can vary in length. One type, an interim CR, is in effect only for a specified amount of time, such as three weeks or a month and a half. The second type, a full-year CR, provides funds from the time it goes into effect until the end of the fiscal year. Actually, some CRs are a combination of the two, providing full-year funding for some budget items, and partial funding for others…

Continuing resolutions establish what are called “rates,” levels of funding for government programs. Sometimes, CRs provide funds at the exact same levels as the previous year. Sometimes they provide more money to account for inflation and other price increases that would inhibit the effectiveness of programs if they were denied additional funds. Interim CRs often will set spending limits this way. Full-year CRs can also provide funding via spending rates like interim CRs, but they also might incorporate the language of an appropriation bill floating around the House or Senate.

The current continuing resolution was enacted on September 30, just before the government was due to shut down. For the most part, this continuing resolution, the Extending Government Funding and Delivering Emergency Assistance Act (P.L. 117-43), provided funding at the same levels as programs received for fiscal year 2021. This continuing resolution is set to expire on Friday, December 3.

Unless some major snafu occurs, Congress is expected to pass another continuing resolution before Friday. On Monday morning, Politico reported that congressional leaders are considering another short-term CR until January rather than a fully-year.

A CR is not as preferable as an actual appropriation bill, or even an omnibus appropriation bill (where multiple appropriation bills are lumped together), since a CR merely continues previous policies rather than update programs to reflect new circumstances.  But that is a subject for another blog post.

Congress regularly fails to enact its appropriations on time, a sign that the budget process is badly in need of reform. Reworking the appropriations process calendar is an important component of reform, as Congressional Institute president Mark Strand and senior advisor Anca Butcaru point out in the congressional reform white paper, “Happy New Year: The Fiscal Year Should Start on January 1st”:

Changing the date of the fiscal year to the beginning of the calendar year is a first step towards addressing the issues of the calendar for the budget procedures as it is right now.

Today, at the end of each fiscal year, Congress often passes a CR that expires at the end of the calendar year, and the holiday rush is a powerful action-inducing deadline. The Legislative Branch ought to bow to this reality and re-align the fiscal year to the calendar year.