Reliance on continuing resolutions hinders budget planning process

During the winter of 1995-96, congressional Republicans were locked in a budget stalemate with President Clinton. The Republicans refused to finish their appropriations work and allowed the federal government to close down. And the conventional wisdom is that they got more bad press over the shutdown than Clinton did.

Since then, nobody on Capitol Hill has called for allowing the government to shut down again. But that doesn't mean that lawmakers always finish the 13 annual appropriations bills by October 1, the start of the new fiscal year. Instead, Congress routinely passes continuing resolutions placing the unfunded parts of the government on autopilot, by supplying appropriations at the previous year's level.

In fiscal 2001, lawmakers approved 21 consecutive CRs until they finally finished their work in mid-December. And in the past two years, Congress didn't even finish in time for the holidays. The fiscal 2003 appropriations bills weren't completed until last February, while the fiscal 2004 appropriations bills still aren't done; the Senate will take up the House-passed omnibus bill upon reconvening on January 20.

In an interview, House Appropriations Committee Chairman Bill Young, R-Fla., said that rather than being routine, CRs should be a "last-ditch effort." He added that these stopgap measures are "not what the Constitution intended, and that's not the way the process is supposed to work."

Both Democratic- and Republican-controlled Congresses have had difficulty finishing the appropriations bills on time. Over the past three decades, going back to fiscal 1972, Congress has completed all of the appropriations bills by the start of the fiscal year only four times: fiscal 1977, 1989, 1995, and 1997, according to Vital Statistics on Congress, 2001-2002.

Government-by-CR has serious real-life consequences. In December, Senate Appropriations Committee Chairman Ted Stevens, R-Alaska, said that "continuing to operate under a continuing resolution until late January will place an unnecessary burden on many Americans who receive benefits through programs funded in the omnibus bill." For instance, the omnibus calls for federal civilian employees to receive a 4.1 percent salary increase effective January 1. Those raises will be cut in half until the omnibus package is signed into law.

In addition, Stevens said that because the spending bills are not completed, the Veterans Affairs Department would have to curtail hiring new physicians, while programs funded through the Corporation for National and Community Service would have to delay enrolling new participants. Various other programs face similar problems, Stevens said.

Funding the government through a series of CRs "makes everything more difficult," said Alice Rivlin, director and senior fellow in economic studies at the Brookings Institution. From 1975 to 1983, Rivlin served as the founding director of the Congressional Budget Office, and she headed the Office of Management and Budget during the Clinton administration.

Rivlin said that if federal departments and agencies do not know their final budget for the current year, they have difficulty planning a budget for the next fiscal year. And since the president's budget is sent to Capitol Hill in early February, agencies begin preparing their budgets in the middle of the previous year. The problem is "mainly the uncertainty," Rivlin said.

Likewise, a senior Senate Democratic aide added: "It's difficult to prepare for the next budget year. You're giving [added] power to past decisions."

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