This is a silly way to run a government, but we do it every year

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In the weird and wonky world of Washington, funding deadlines written into law are mere suggestions and the threat of a partial government shutdown is always on the horizon.

The 2024 fiscal year started on October 1, but lawmakers have yet to officially pass the 12 funding bills that are supposed to form the backbone of discretionary government spending – things like defense spending, etc.

What is a CR?

Unable to finalize an agreement on those larger bills, lawmakers have passed a series of temporary bills, or “continuing resolutions” – or “CRs,” as they’re referred to in the lexicon of the federal government, which is arguably its own dialect of the English language.

Journalists frequently try to translate “continuing resolution” or “CR” into plain English by referring to it as a “stopgap” spending bill or a “short-term” spending bill.

Why did lawmakers just pass another one?

The House and Senate passed another short-term extension for part of the government this week, which President Joe Biden signed into law, giving Congress some more time to negotiate spending five months after the fact.

The latest in a series of deadlines caused by these temporary spending bills is next Friday, March 8, for part of the government and March 22 for the rest of it.

How often do they do this?

Pretty much every year. Far from a unique occurrence, continuing resolutions are an annual affair.

October 1 has been the official kickoff date for the federal fiscal year since 1977. Lawmakers have passed at least one continuing resolution in all but three of the years in the nearly half-century since. The 1997 fiscal year was the most recent one in which no CRs were enacted, according to the Congressional Research Service.

Lawmakers don’t even seem to be trying very hard to pass the bills on time at this point. Federal discretionary spending is supposed to be broken down into 12 appropriations bills. In most years for the past two decades, lawmakers haven’t passed a single one by October 1. They haven’t passed half of the appropriations bills on time in any year since 1997.

Instead, they will wrap the spending bills into larger packages – frequently called an “omnibus” that is passed in December or later. In 1997, for instance, there was no CR, but the spending bills were all passed together as an omnibus. In 2017, the final bills were not enacted until after May 1, according to the Government Accountability Office.

It’s better than a partial shutdown, right?

On the one hand, these bills are superior to the alternative, which would be a partial government shutdown. Much has been written about how inefficient, unnecessary and disruptive partial shutdowns can be.

CRs are a different kind of inefficient and disruptive occurrence. While government operations and services continue, CRs do have an effect. GAO has written in-depth reports that outline how CRs “slow hiring, create funding uncertainty, and cause administrative burdens.”

In years like this one, when a patchwork of CRs extends for a large portion of the year, those effects are amplified.

The whole point of Congress approving funding is to guide the federal government. They add funding for certain programs and subtract it for others. With CRs, those tweaks usually aren’t happening.

“The thousands of hours agencies spend on budget planning are wasted when Congress simply bypasses the regular appropriations process and uses a CR,” testified Maya MacGuineas, president of the Committee for a Responsible Federal Budget, in 2018.

How does all of this affect Americans?

I asked CNN’s Tami Luhby how the herky-jerky funding process – and simply relying on last year’s funding levels – can affect the way the government provides services to people. She offered up the following examples and argued that the effects are particularly focused on those who depend on government aid for food assistance and help paying for utilities.

LUHBY: For instance, WIC, which provides nutrition assistance and education for low-income pregnant women, new mothers and young children, is facing a $1 billion shortfall for the current fiscal year. Enrollment jumped to 6.6 million people in November, up from just under 6.4 million a year earlier, according to the latest federal data.

If Congress continues the current funding level for the rest of the fiscal year, about 2 million pregnant women, new moms and kids could lose access to benefits, according to the left-leaning Center on Budget and Policy Priorities.

Many states are already cutting back on the federal utility assistance they are doling out to residents, who have had to contend with high heating and cooling bills in recent years. Demand for the Low Income Home Energy Assistance Program, known as LIHEAP, is at historic levels as electricity and natural gas arrearages hit record highs, according to the National Energy Assistance Directors Association, which began tracking these figures when arrearages exploded at the start of the Covid-19 pandemic in 2020.

In recent years, lawmakers have funneled several billion dollars more into LIHEAP, which typically receives around $4 billion in base funding. But since the fiscal year 2024 funding levels have not yet been set, states must assume they’ll only get the base level. That means they must cut the amount of benefits households receive, reduce the number of people who are helped or cut their cooling programs, among other actions.

They are waiting to see if Congress provides the additional $1.6 billion in support that the Biden administration requested in October.

What’s a better idea?

Private sector companies could not operate in this way, and neither should the federal government, according to an argument from the Partnership for Public Service, which advocates for good governance and has argued for moving the government funding process to a two-year instead of every year schedule.

It’s hard to foster innovation or security if workers are constantly stopping and starting. Other ideas include automatic CRs – almost like an automatic overdraft protection so Congress can debate the larger spending bills instead of wasting time on the temporary ones.

Will lawmakers solve the funding problem this year?

Republicans who control the House and Democrats who control the Senate were on the cusp of a funding deal back in January that would have imposed some funding limits for 2024 and 2025 as spending-conscious Republicans demanded.

To his credit, instead of embracing a shutdown mentality, House Speaker Mike Johnson has instead kept the government open and kicked the can down the road by utilizing Democratic votes to pass CRs as they iron out the details for the larger bill.

CNN’s Capitol Hill team notes the six funding bills that lawmakers have reached an agreement on and plan to pass before March 8 include departments of Agriculture-FDA; Commerce, Justice and Science; Energy and Water Development; Interior; Military Construction-Veterans Affairs; and Transportation-Housing and Urban Development.

The remaining six appropriations bills that lawmakers plan to vote on prior to March 22 are Defense; Financial Services and General Government; Homeland Security; Labor-Health and Human Services; the Legislative Branch; and State and Foreign Operations.

There is optimism they will figure it out – just in time to get started on next year’s funding. Don’t hold your breath for them to get the 2025 spending bills done on time.

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