Shutdowns and continuing resolutions aren’t the answer for effective government
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Shutdowns and continuing resolutions aren’t the answer for effective government

September 22, 2023 | Updated on November 15, 2023

Congress is racing around the clock to fund the federal government.  

When annual funding bills aren’t passed through the appropriations process, the government shuts down. These shutdowns dramatically reduce or halt many basic government functions, cost taxpayers money, and hurt the economy and the public. 

What is happening with appropriations now? 

Congress allocates funding for federal agencies and programs through the appropriations process. This funding typically makes up only approximately one-third of the federal budget, with a majority of spending going toward Social Security, Medicare, Medicaid and mandatory programs that fall outside the purview of annual appropriations.  

Before the August recess, members of the House and the Senate passed 10 of the 12 required bills out of their respective appropriations committees. However, the bills they drafted are vastly different. The Senate Appropriations Committee approved all 12 appropriations bills for the full Senate to consider, in line with the spending caps outlined in the bipartisan compromise on the debt limit developed earlier this year. The full House and Senate still need to consider and vote on these bills.  

Many in the House, however, want to cut agency budgets by a much greater margin than what was outlined in the debt deal and have written bills that include policy riders sure to spark extended debate and negotiations, including ones that seek to return telework policies to pre-pandemic levels and another that seeks to defund diversity, equity and inclusion programs.  

The administration and members of the House and Senate need to either negotiate a full appropriations package or pass a continuing resolution to keep the government funded and fully open for business.  

What about a continuing resolution? 

Continuing resolutions provide temporary funding, generally frozen at existing levels, to continue federal programs and activities.

These stopgap measures hinder innovations in technology, operations and staffing that our government needs to deliver services more effectively, forcing agencies to live with a fiscal uncertainty that prevents them from making long-term, strategic decisions. No private sector organization could function effectively under such constraints, and our government should not be expected to either.  

Unfortunately, Congress has passed an average of five continuing resolutions each year since 1998. And since 1976, our government has shut down 21 times for at least a day, when Congress could not agree on appropriations or pass stopgap funding, including a partial government shutdown of 35 days in 2018-2019. 

Shutdowns are bad for the public and federal employees. National parks close, air travel faces disruptions, mortgage and small business loan applications face delays, food safety inspections cease, and many other important functions grind to a halt. Just yesterday, the White House warned of potential impacts including the Food and Drug Administration would have to furlough employees who would normally conduct food safety inspections, the Federal Emergency Management Agency would have to halt long-term projects and more.  

In addition, nuclear plant inspectors, medical providers at Department of Veterans Affairs facilities, members of the U.S. military and other critical federal employees who must stay on the job could also be forced to work without pay. A Senate report found that shutdowns in 2013, 2018 and 2019 cost taxpayers nearly $4 billion due to back pay to furloughed federal workers, extra administrative work, lost revenue and more.  

The way forward  

Several legislative reforms would help put a stop to these troubling developments. 

Congress should look for new ways to reform the budgeting process, for example by moving to a biennial schedule, giving lawmakers two years, rather than one, to draft and negotiate parameters for spending.   

Legislators should also provide more multiyear appropriations so agencies have funds they can rely on to make long-term investments. Another option, featured in recent legislation and one of our latest op-eds, would be to automatically enact continuing resolutions when Congress cannot reach an agreement.  

A bipartisan bill, sponsored by Sens. James Lankford and Maggie Hassan, in addition to a bicameral bill introduced by Sen. Tim Kaine and Rep. Don Beyer, would enact this change and compel lawmakers to stay in Washington, D.C., until they pass a full appropriations package.  

While these reforms may take time, it is imperative that Congress pass funding in the immediate term, preferably through appropriations bills rather than a continuing resolution, so that agencies can best serve the public.  

For more information and resources on a potential government shutdown, visit our website.

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