Fiscal year 2023 started with a continuing resolution (CR), which is legislation to fund the government temporarily when Congress does not pass its regular appropriations bills that last the entire fiscal year. Calendar year 2023—which begins three months after the fiscal year—may start with another continuing resolution. Congress did not pass any FY 2023 regular appropriations bills by September 30, so it passed a continuing resolution to keep the government funded through December 16. Congress’s current challenge is to pass another spending bill before December 17, or the government will shut down. There have been talks of another short-term CR, and some wondered if Congress will simply pass a full-year CR.
Passing a full-year CR might not seem like a big deal. Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin would disagree. He has warned that a full-year CR would pose a national security threat:
While the short-term CR passed by Congress was a necessary measure to keep the government open and provide additional time to reach agreement on full-year appropriations bills, some have even suggested a CR could last an entire year, an unprecedented move that would cause enormous, if not irreparable, damage for a wide range of bipartisan priorities – from defense readiness and modernization, to research and development, to public health…
The catch is that Secretary Austin made that statement around this time last year, in 2021. He issued a similar statement just days ago. Any other Secretary of Defense could have made similar statements. For instance, former Secretary of Defense James Mattis, who served during the first two years of the Trump Administration, wrote in the fall of 2017, “Long term CRs impact the readiness of our forces and their equipment at a time when security threats are extraordinarily high. The longer the CR, the greater the consequences for our force.”
The Secretary of Defense is not the only one to repeat himself this time of year. Around this time in 2021, we published another blog post about how a continuing resolution was soon to expire. At a time when millions are getting ready for Christmas and Hannukah, Congress is acting out its own DC-themed reboot of the movie Groundhog Day.
(And while we’re talking about movies, anyone hanging around the Capitol waiting for the appropriations process to play out might want to take a look at our congressional movie recommendations. We’ve got congressional book recommendations, too.)
Congress does not need to replay the same-old story year in and year out. Congress can build on its current budget process to pass spending legislation more timely and rationally.
The Congressional Budget Process & Continuing Resolutions
Passing another fiscal year 2023 continuing resolution would be another departure from the Congressional Budget Act, which is the primary blueprint for the current appropriations process. According to this law, on or before April 15, both Chambers must agree to a single concurrent budget resolution, laying out the anticipated spending and tax levels for at least the next five years. The discretionary spending levels for the upcoming fiscal year are supposed to guide the work of the Appropriations Committees, which draft the annual spending bills. After finishing work on the concurrent budget resolution, Congress should enact (and the President should sign) 12 appropriations bills providing funding for different government activities before the start of the fiscal year on October 1. Each of the 12 bills is supposed to fund specified government activities for the next fiscal year. If Congress cannot pass a bill by the end of the fiscal year, the government programs that the bill is supposed to fund (with some exceptions) must halt operations. By extension, if Congress doesn’t pass any funding bills, no government program (with certain exceptions) can continue. So Congress steps in with continuing resolutions to forestall government shutdowns.
As the statements of the Secretaries of Defense suggest, the difference between a continuing resolution and a regular appropriations bill is not a mere procedural technicality. The difference is substantial. We’ve previously explained the difference between continuing resolutions and regular appropriations bills:
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.
Many in Washington hate CRs since it generally means current policies continue, and agencies cannot implement new policies or programs until Congress enacts the regular appropriations bills. They’re so hated that one investigative report was titled “Welcome to CR Hell.” As bad as they are, Congress uses continuing resolutions since they prevent government shutdowns, which most Members see as an irresponsible way to govern and bad politics. Thus we can expect another fiscal year 2023 continuing resolution.
Budget Process Reforms in the 118th Congress
A new fiscal year 2023 continuing resolution is just another sign that Congress should reform its budget process. Several fixes to the budget process will promote the more rational and timely passage of spending bills, and we’ve written about them at length. Here’s a sampling of ways to build a better budget process:
- Align the government’s fiscal year with the calendar year. Congress usually passes spending legislation around this time of year anyways. Let’s ring in the new fiscal year when we ring in the new calendar year.
- Earmark responsibly and transparently: The Constitution gives Congress—not the Executive Branch—the power over the purse. Members know their districts better than Washington bureaucrats; let Members decide how the government spends money across the country. Members will also have the incentive to see the appropriations bills passed.
- Implement biennial budgeting: Congress often sets two-year spending levels and then appropriates annually. Rather than trying to set annual spending levels, as the Congressional Budget Act currently requires, Congress should make two-year budget levels the standard. This change would reflect how it has operated over much of the last decade.
- Restore the authorization process. The authorization process is a way Congress holds the Executive Branch accountable, and authorization legislation sets policies Executive agencies must follow. It also allows Members not on the Appropriations Committees to weigh in on spending decisions via the authorizations of appropriations contained in the authorization bills. Too often, however, Congress fails to pass badly needed authorization bills.
Any one or two of these reforms will allow Congress to complete its appropriations process in a more orderly fashion. Adopting all of them will benefit Congress the most. Next year, Congress will need all the help it can get since the Republicans will control the House and the Democrats will control the Senate, and the majority in both Chambers will be incredibly narrow. With narrow majorities and a divided Congress, both parties in both Chambers have an incentive for the Legislative Branch to work effectively—it’s the perfect time for budget reform.
If Congress can reform the budget process early next year—what a way to start a new Congress!—this time next year or the year after, rather than writing about how Congress hasn’t passed its spending bills, journalists might be writing articles about how it appropriated government funds on time and without relying on massive omnibus bills.
Both reforming the budget and the regular appropriations process are difficult, but, hey, this is the season of hope, right?
Mark Strand is the President of the Congressional Institute and Timothy Lang is the research director. The Sausage Factory blog is a Congressional Institute project dedicated to explaining parliamentary procedure, Congressional politics, and other issues about the Legislative Branch.
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