UPDATED: December 26, 2023

Understanding Continuing Resolutions

Imagine you're a government employee or someone who really digs into the nitty-gritty of how our government spends money. You've heard the term “continuing resolution” tossed around, especially when budget deadlines loom and everyone's talking about whether there'll be a shutdown. But what exactly is a continuing resolution, and why does it matter to you? Let's break it down: A continuing resolution is like a temporary fix that keeps the government running when Congress can't agree on a new budget in time. It's not just political jargon; it affects real people and real services.

Now, you might wonder why this isn't just sorted out with an appropriations bill—those big, detailed plans for spending that should ideally be in place. Well, things get complicated, and sometimes those bills don't get passed as planned. That's where continuing resolutions step in to prevent everything from grinding to a halt. They're crucial for keeping things stable but come with their own set of challenges for agencies trying to plan ahead. Stick around as we dive into how these stopgap measures work, their pros and cons, and what they mean for folks like you who keep our government ticking day-to-day.

The Basics of Continuing Resolutions

In this section, you'll get the basics of continuing resolutions. We'll cover what they are, how they differ from appropriations bills, and why they matter. If you're a government employee, policymaker, or just interested in government funding, this will help you understand the implications and potential impact of a continuing resolution on government operations and funding.

Definition and Purpose

A continuing resolution is what Congress uses to keep the government running when they can't agree on a new budget in time. It's like a temporary fix that keeps money flowing at last year's levels so that parts of the government don't have to shut down. This kind of resolution can be for just part of the government or all of it, and sometimes it might have extra bits added on—though a “clean” one doesn't. Right now, for fiscal year 2024, there are two different continuing resolutions in place: one that goes until January 19 and another until February 2.

These resolutions are basically Congress hitting the snooze button because they haven't figured out the full budget yet. They stop everything from grinding to a halt, but they're not ideal since agencies can't really plan ahead without knowing their full-year funding. It's better when the government gets funded for the whole year because then everyone knows what they've got to work with and can make plans accordingly. But until there's an agreement on those big appropriations bills, continuing resolutions are what keep things moving along—even if it's just temporary.

How Continuing Resolutions Differ from Appropriations Bills

When Congress can't agree on appropriations bills by the October 1 deadline, they use continuing resolutions as a temporary fix. These stopgap measures keep the government running based on last year's budget levels for a short time until they can hammer out an annual appropriation. Unlike full appropriations bills that set funding for the whole fiscal year, continuing resolutions are just a quick patch to prevent shutdowns and give lawmakers more time to negotiate.

If those regular appropriations bills aren't ready by the start of the fiscal year, you could see a government shutdown unless Congress passes a continuing resolution (CR). A CR keeps things going but doesn't allow for any major changes or new initiatives since it's based on previous funding levels. Sometimes CRs tweak certain areas of spending to avoid problems or address specific needs, but overall, they're not ideal because they lack stability and can disrupt normal operations. They've become pretty common though—133 were used from 1998 to 2024—which shows how often lawmakers rely on them instead of passing new budgets on time.

The Budget and Spending Process in the United States

In this section, we'll dive into the budget and spending process in the United States. We'll start by giving you an overview of the federal budget process, and then we'll explore the role of continuing resolutions in the budget cycle. If you're a government employee, policymaker, or just someone interested in government funding, this will help you understand how a continuing resolution can affect government operations and funding.

Overview of the Federal Budget Process

When it comes to the federal budget process in the U.S., it's a team effort that starts with the President and involves Congress. First off, federal agencies pitch their budget needs, and then the Office of Management and Budget (OMB) works with the President to craft a proposal. This proposal is sent over to Congress where they have their say, setting guidelines for spending through a budget resolution. After that, various subcommittees get down to business, holding hearings and working on funding bills.

Now here's where you come in: both houses of Congress need to agree on these bills before they land on the President's desk for approval or veto. It’s like putting together a huge puzzle where each piece has to fit just right. If there are any hiccups along the way—like if agreement can't be reached in time—a continuing resolution might be used to keep things running temporarily without causing interruptions in government operations or funding.

The Role of Continuing Resolutions in the Budget Cycle

Continuing resolutions are like a temporary fix when the U.S. government can't agree on a new budget in time. They keep the government running by extending funding at current levels, so nothing has to shut down while lawmakers work things out. Think of it as hitting the snooze button on your alarm clock; it gives you a little more time to get ready for the day.

Now, if Congress can't decide on how to spend money for the next year before their deadline hits, that's when they need a continuing resolution. It's like if you and your friends can't pick a movie before movie night starts—you just watch something you've seen before until you all make up your minds. This way, government programs and jobs keep going without interruption while everyone tries to reach an agreement.

Advantages and Disadvantages of Continuing Resolutions

In this section, we'll explore the advantages and disadvantages of continuing resolutions. We'll delve into the benefits to government operations and also discuss the challenges and criticisms associated with this approach. If you're a government employee, policymaker, or someone interested in government funding, understanding these implications can give you valuable insights into how continuing resolutions can impact government operations and funding.

Benefits to Government Operations

Continuing resolutions are a bit like a band-aid for government funding. They help keep things running smoothly when the full budget isn't ready yet. This means that even if lawmakers haven't figured out all the details of the budget, government agencies can still do their jobs and provide you with services without interruption. It's a way to avoid shutting down parts of the government, which can be a big relief for everyone who relies on those services.

But it's not just about keeping the lights on; continuing resolutions also give agencies some breathing room while they wait for their final budgets. They can use this time to plan and make sure they're ready to go once they get their full funding. Sure, there are some downsides—like not being able to start new projects right away or having to hold off on hiring—but agencies have gotten pretty good at working around these challenges. They might tap into other funds temporarily or delay certain programs until they know how much money they'll have in the long run. So, while it's not perfect, continuing resolutions help maintain stability in government operations until everything is sorted out with the budget. If you want more details on how this all works, check out these resources from GAO, PGPF, and another GAO report.

Challenges and Criticisms

Continuing resolutions (CRs) are often criticized because they roll over the previous year's budget without considering changes in policy needs or evaluating the effectiveness of programs. This can lead to funding programs that may no longer be necessary or effective. Additionally, CRs can waste the time and effort that goes into carefully planning and evaluating each agency's budget proposal.

For government agencies, CRs create a host of challenges. They bring about inefficiencies by causing delays in contracts, grants, and hiring processes. The uncertainty introduced by CRs makes it tough for agencies to plan ahead or kick off new projects, which can decrease service levels, increase costs, and reduce productivity. Despite these issues, Congress has relied on CRs almost every year for nearly five decades—making this uncertainty an unfortunate norm for government operations.

Historical Context of Continuing Resolutions

In this section, you'll explore the historical context of continuing resolutions. We'll delve into key historical milestones and recent trends in continuing resolution usage. This information will help you understand the implications and potential impact of a continuing resolution on government operations and funding. Whether you're a government employee, policymaker, or just interested in government funding, this section will provide valuable insights for you.

Key Historical Milestones

You've probably heard about continuing resolutions, or CRs, as they're a key part of how the U.S. government manages its finances when there's no set budget. Over the years, from 2010 to 2022, there have been 47 of these CRs passed by Congress and signed by the President. They can be really short—like just a day—or stretch out for almost half a year (176 days). This practice isn't new; it actually started back in fiscal year 1977 when the first-ever continuing resolution was passed.

These milestones are more than just dates on a calendar; they show how often and for how long the government has had to rely on temporary funding measures instead of having full-year appropriations in place. For you as someone interested in government operations and funding, this means that CRs are pretty important—they keep things running when there's no official budget but also highlight where there might be uncertainty or instability in government funding strategies.

Recent Trends in Continuing Resolution Usage

Lawmakers have been leaning on continuing resolutions (CRs) a lot lately, especially when they can't get their appropriation bills done by the new fiscal year. This means they're using temporary fixes to keep the government running and avoid shutdowns. For fiscal year 2024, they've already had to use multiple CRs for different agencies. But this isn't great because it keeps funding flat at last year's levels and doesn't take into account any new needs or changes that should be made. Plus, it messes with how agencies operate and plan for the future.

In the past ten years, CRs have been pretty common. From 1998 to 2012, Congress used them to fund government operations for an average of over four months each time! The length of these CRs has varied a lot though—from as short as 21 days up to a whole year—and there's no clear pattern between how many there are and how long they last. For example, in fiscal year 2001 there were a whopping 21 CRs but they only lasted about four days each on average; meanwhile in FY2009 and FY2010 there were just two each but they stretched out way longer. So yeah, these stopgap measures are definitely being used often and in all sorts of ways over the last decade. If you want more details on this topic you can check out Every CRS Report or PGPF.

Impact on Government Employees and Operations

In this section, we'll explore the impact of a continuing resolution on government employees and operations. We'll delve into the short-term versus long-term effects, as well as examine case studies of government departments under continuing resolutions. If you're a government employee, policymaker, or simply interested in how government funding works, this will give you insight into what to expect and how it may affect you or your work.

Short-Term vs. Long-Term Effects

When the government uses continuing resolutions, it's like putting a band-aid on funding. In the short term, these resolutions keep things running but can lead to inefficiencies and disruptions in government operations. You might see projects getting delayed or agencies being unable to start new initiatives because they're unsure about their future budgets.

Over time, if continuing resolutions become the norm rather than the exception, it can cause some serious headaches. Government agencies could face funding problems and program freezes that make it tough for them to plan ahead. This uncertainty can also make policymakers less likely to tackle important issues head-on since they're not making firm decisions on where money should go. Since 2010, there have been 47 of these stopgap measures! They vary in length but often result in freezing funds at current levels for months at a time, which isn't great for effective budget planning or decision-making.

Case Studies: Government Departments Under Continuing Resolutions

When the government operates under a continuing resolution, or CR, departments like the USDA, Department of Education, and HHS often face some tough challenges. You might see things like administrative inefficiencies and uncertainty about funding. This can mess with hiring new staff, rolling out programs, and giving out grants. It's not unusual for these issues to lead to delays or increased costs. Even though services might be reduced a bit during these times, these agencies keep on working without any major interruptions.

Now let's talk about your day-to-day work in federal agencies during a CR. It can get tricky because you're not sure how much money you'll have to work with in the long run. This means you might have to put off starting new projects or hiring people until there's more stability in funding. But despite all this uncertainty and having to maybe change how things are done on the fly, your agency will still push through and get its job done for the public!

Future of Continuing Resolutions

In this section, we'll explore the future of continuing resolutions. We'll delve into potential reforms and alternatives, as well as expert opinions and predictions. If you're a government employee, policymaker, or just someone interested in government funding, this will give you insight into the implications and potential impact of continuing resolutions on government operations and funding.

Potential Reforms and Alternatives

You're looking into how the continuing resolution process could be improved, right? Well, some folks have put forward ideas like cutting down debate time for budget resolutions, limiting amendments, and making sure there's enough time to review those amendments before they're voted on. Another suggestion is to have automatic continuing resolutions that keep funding at the same level as the previous year. This would help dodge government shutdowns and also includes some incentives and penalties to push for full appropriations.

Now, if you're wondering whether there are other ways to handle government funding besides these stopgap measures, yes there are. These alternatives aim to make the budget process more predictable and stable while addressing the inefficiencies that come with using continuing resolutions. But even with these ideas floating around, it's important to know that continuing resolutions haven't gone anywhere—they're still a big part of how government funding is managed today.

Expert Opinions and Predictions

Experts believe that continuing resolutions, or CRs, will still be used in the future. They warn that CRs should be rare because they can mess up the federal budget process and make it hard for lawmakers to use money wisely. This can also stop agencies from doing their jobs well. There's a push for changes to make sure spending bills are passed on time.

If the process for CRs changes, it could bring a lot of uncertainty to government funding. It might cause delays in contracts and grants, slow down hiring, add extra work, interrupt government services, discourage good management practices, and hurt federal workers. Right now, the government is using CRs for temporary funding because lawmakers haven't agreed on a full year's budget yet. Funding for a whole year is better because it lets agencies plan properly and use their resources effectively. Agencies are trying to deal with CRs by warning that grant money depends on what Congress decides later on and sometimes moving funds around between programs when needed.

Frequently Asked Questions

In this section, we'll cover some frequently asked questions about continuing resolutions (CRs). We'll discuss whether the US government passed a CR, what a laddered CR is, how CRs affect government employees, and whether they can lead to government shutdowns. If you're a government employee, policymaker, or just interested in how the government's funding works, this information will help you understand the implications and potential impact of a continuing resolution on government operations and funding.

Did the US government pass a continuing resolution?

The last time the US government passed a continuing resolution was on November 17, 2023. This is a temporary funding measure that keeps the government running when the annual budget hasn't been approved. It's important for you to know that continuing resolutions are meant to be short-term fixes, but they've become pretty common. In fact, it's not unusual for there to be multiple continuing resolutions in a year.

For you as government employees, policymakers, or someone interested in how the government spends money, this means that long-term planning can be tricky. Projects and programs might not get steady funding and this can lead to uncertainty in operations. It's like knowing your paycheck is coming but not being sure how much it will be or exactly when it'll arrive—definitely something to keep an eye on if your work depends on federal funding. If you want more details about what a continuing resolution entails and its effects, check out these resources from PGPF and GAO.

What is a laddered CR?

A laddered continuing resolution is like a temporary fix that Congress uses to keep the government running when they haven't agreed on a new budget yet. They make several short-term funding deals with different end dates for different parts of the government. This way, they can keep things moving while they figure out the full budget details. It's kind of like having multiple deadlines instead of just one big one.

This method has been used more often lately, with about five times a year on average. It's not ideal because it can mess up how agencies plan their spending since they're not sure how much money they'll have in the long run. The best scenario is when the government gets its full funding for the whole year all at once, so everything runs smoothly and agencies can plan better.

How do continuing resolutions affect government employees?

When a continuing resolution (CR) is in place, it can really shake things up for you if you're working for the government. You might see hiring slow down or even stop, which can mess with your agency's plans and the services it offers. It's not just about jobs either; programs that depend on government funding might not know what they'll have to work with, making it tough to plan and do their thing effectively.

And there's more—contracts and grants could get delayed, which means agencies might not be able to provide their usual level of service. This can lead to higher costs and lower quality work when rushing to meet deadlines later on. Plus, if a CR leads to a shutdown, that's bad news for everyone: government activities get put on hold, planning goes out the window, and federal workers like you may have to go without pay until things are back up and running.

Can continuing resolutions lead to government shutdowns?

Continuing resolutions (CRs) are like temporary fixes when Congress hasn't passed the full budget for the year. They keep the government running by extending funding for a short time. But if Congress doesn't pass these CRs or a full budget before October 1st, which is when the fiscal year starts, there's no money to run the government, and that leads to a shutdown. Shutdowns can cause all sorts of problems—think closed national parks and delayed paperwork.

Now, while CRs help dodge shutdowns by buying more time to sort out budgets, they're not perfect. They can make it tough for government agencies to plan ahead and do their jobs well because they don't know how long the money will last. And you've probably heard about shutdowns in the news; they've happened before with one lasting as long as 35 days! So yeah, continuing resolutions are super important because they keep things moving and help prevent those messy shutdowns. If you want more details on this topic, check out resources from Brookings, CRFB, GAO, EconoFact, and PGPF.


So, you've got to get the lowdown on continuing resolutions and how they shake things up for government operations, right? Well, here's the deal: these stopgap measures are like a band-aid when Congress can't agree on a full budget. They keep the lights on but aren't perfect—think short-term fixes that sometimes lead to bigger headaches down the road. For you folks working in government or keeping an eye on Uncle Sam's wallet, it means dealing with uncertainty and making do until a real deal is struck. And while there's talk about changing up how this all works, for now, continuing resolutions are a big part of the game. Keep your eyes peeled for what comes next—it'll affect your work and maybe even your paycheck.