Economy & Budget

Another fiscal year, another CR; it’s time for this nonsense to end


It happened again. Another nail biter with Congress taking us down to the wire to fund the government. At least all sides agreed on a mostly “clean” continuing resolution without too many controversial policy changes crammed into it. Now that it’s signed into law, the country has avoided a government shutdown. For now. It is 2020 after all.

CRs have gotten so commonplace it’s hard to remember that Congress, by its own budget laws, is required to pass 12 appropriation bills every year by June 30. That’s well before the end of the fiscal year on Sept. 30. This year Congress couldn’t even get one appropriations bill to the president. To be sure, its hands were full with pandemic relief bills. Still, funding the federal government is one of Congress’ key constitutional roles and it shouldn’t take a back seat to other matters.

This isn’t just another 2020 thing. Year after year Congress fails to get its work done on time, frequently bringing the country to the brink of a crisis.

Congress has finished appropriations through regular order a whopping four times since it passed the Budget Act in 1974. CRs have routinely been used to keep the lights on. Things really went wrong 10 times and the American people had chaotic and costly government shutdowns foisted on them.

But a limited CR can go only so far. Ultimately, Congress needs to pass spending bills for the entire fiscal year. With a full calendar and short on legislative time, the typical route is through a massive omnibus spending bill. It’s hard to believe 2020 would be any different.

But “omnis” are a nightmare for good governance. Their size can hide billions in special interest spending, corporate welfare, and pet projects needed to garner votes. Their must-pass nature allows controversial policy changes that would not pass on their own to hitch an easy ride and avoid a veto.

The closer to the shutdown deadline, the bigger this unnecessary crisis becomes. Members are then forced to vote for an unaffordable spending bill or a government shutdown. And Americans hate shutdowns. So it’s no surprise that Washington wanted to avoid any threat of a shutdown before the election.

The biggest point of negotiation — how long the CR would last — was not really important for overall spending. The same issues will still be in play when it expires Dec. 11. Members will be forced to choose between a massive, unaffordable spending bill and a government shutdown. Back to the same budget by crisis mentality where a Dickensian “please sir, I want some more” mentality to bring home the bacon prevails.

There is a better way.

An automatic CR would seamlessly provide funding at the prior year’s level for any part of the federal government needing appropriations after Sept. 30.

This would allow members to read and consider budget bills and put an end to midnight votes on 2,000 page legislation. They would be free to vote their conscience on bloated spending bills without worrying about a government shutdown.

But details matter. An auto CR must create the right incentives to push members to follow the budget process.

There are a number of approaches this could take. Sen. Rob Portman’s (R-Ohio) End Government Shutdowns Act would give lawmakers 120 days to fund the government and then automatically cut spending across the board. That’s a powerful incentive to keep lawmakers working. Sen. James Lankford’s (R-Okla.) Prevent Government Shutdowns Act would bar travel from Washington, allow only appropriations on the floor, and require daily work. Sen. Tim Kaine’s (D-Va.) End Shutdowns Act would allow only appropriations votes.

But an auto CR should never automatically increase spending. Too much of the budget is already growing on autopilot, and it would be far too much temptation for Congress to put the entire federal budget on growth steroids. CBO’s recent reports show we are already facing a grim fiscal future. Measures like Portman’s would create the right incentives for Congress to do its job on time to begin with.

One thing is clear: The budget process is in shambles. But past need not be prologue. Lawmakers need a better way than the unpopular and harmful budget-by-crisis mentality that has permeated Washington for years.

Who knows, it might even be popular with voters.

Alison Acosta Winters is a senior policy fellow at Americans for Prosperity.

Tags Continuing resolution James Lankford omnibus Rob Portman Tim Kaine

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