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Congress’s short-term funding bills are a terrible way to govern

They help avert government shutdowns, but they aren’t responsive to new needs that agencies have.

Chairman Patrick Leahy (D-VT) and ranking member Sen. Richard Shelby (R-AL) arrive for the Senate Appropriations Committee markup of the FY 22 Energy and Water, Agriculture, and MilCon VA Appropriations Bills, in Washington, DC, on August 4, 2021.
Tom Williams/CQ-Roll Call, Inc/Getty Images
Li Zhou is a politics reporter at Vox, where she covers Congress and elections. Previously, she was a tech policy reporter at Politico and an editorial fellow at the Atlantic.

This week, the Senate plans to pass another short-term spending bill that would fund the government through March 11, narrowly avoiding a shutdown.

The vote on a short-term bill, also known as a continuing resolution (CR), comes as existing government funding is set to run out on February 18. In the roughly two months since the last CR passed, lawmakers have been unable to agree on what full-year appropriations should be, and hope to give themselves three more weeks to figure it out.

The agreement to prevent a shutdown is important. But relying on another CR is a deeply flawed approach to governance, one that fails to respond to the everyday needs of various agencies and programs. Because these CRs keep funding at levels approved by Congress in 2020, they effectively freeze spending at the amounts passed during the Trump administration. That means new programs aren’t being fully funded and older programs that need more money aren’t getting it, either.

Many government entities, including the military and the Department of Transportation, have said that the funding they’ve been given can't meet current needs. The use of a continuing resolution is also stalling the implementation of legislation that’s already been passed. Funding for various projects in the bipartisan infrastructure bill, for example, has been delayed since new spending bills haven’t been approved.

“I am concerned that Congress’ continued inaction on Fiscal Year 2022 appropriations could undercut many of the investments provided under the new law,” Sen. Mark Warner (D-VA) said in a recent letter to the Office of Management and Budget.

Why Congress is doing another short-term fix

Congress’s dependence on CRs is due to lawmakers’ inability to agree on full-year appropriations bills.

Congress’s actual deadline for passing appropriations legislation is at the end of September each year. Because bills from the previous year expire at that time, lawmakers need to approve a new set of 12 appropriations bills to fund federal agencies and make sure the government doesn’t run out of money. (If the government runs out of money and shuts down, agencies are forced to furlough employees and reduce their services.)

Had these bills passed on time, all spending would have been approved last fall. Instead, because Democrats and Republicans couldn’t come to an agreement, they passed a short-term spending bill that gave them a new deadline in December. When they couldn’t reach an agreement then, they passed another short-term spending bill that postponed the deadline to February 18. And because of ongoing conflicts, they’re planning to pass one more short-term spending bill to give them until mid-March.

Whether lawmakers procrastinate again is an open question.

Earlier this month, House and Senate lawmakers announced a bipartisan framework for the appropriations bills, which suggests that they could reach a deal soon. As The Hill reported, one of the central disagreements in recent negotiations has been the top-line amount that should be allocated for defense spending versus non-defense spending.

Democrats have been eager to put more funds into social programs and public health investments. Republicans, for their part, have said there should be parity between the increases made on social programs with the increases made in defense funding. Lawmakers have yet to announce what these funding levels will be, but say they’ve reached an agreement in the framework.

According to Roll Call, that agreement is expected to include comparable spending increases for both defense and non-defense spending, as well as a commitment to beginning negotiations with existing policy riders — like the Hyde Amendment — in place.

Democrats have previously pushed to end the Hyde Amendment, which bars the use of federal funds for many abortions and has been hitched to appropriations bills in the past. Republicans, meanwhile, have refused to support legislation without it.

Because Democrats control 50 Senate seats, but need 60 votes to pass the funding bills, members of the minority have leverage over what they’d like to see included. After reaching a deal on the appropriations framework, lawmakers have been hopeful they’ll have the final bills ready to go by mid-March.

Leaders in both parties also expect the continuing resolution to pass this week despite the opposition several Republican senators have vocalized.

Six Republicans, including Sens. Mike Lee (R-UT) and Roger Marshall (R-KS), have said they’ll oppose expediting the passage of the continuing resolution unless they get a vote on an amendment defunding federal vaccine mandates that President Joe Biden has issued. Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer previously held a vote on an amendment to defuse this issue. The defunding effort failed, but another vote on it could happen again.

One other major Republican roadblock has been removed. Sen. Marsha Blackburn (R-TN) had a hold on the legislation due to concerns that funding for a program run by the Department of Health and Human Services would fund drug pipes, something the White House has pushed back on. But on Tuesday, she removed that hold, meaning her objections are no longer blocking the bill.

The downsides of procrastinating

Passing another continuing resolution this week will allow lawmakers to avoid a government shutdown, and that’s a good thing. When the government shuts down, workers across many agencies are furloughed and services including immigration case processing, food inspections, and tax preparations are slowed. Using a short-term fix, though, means most funding for government programs is stuck at the previous levels approved in 2020.

As a result, money for key services will be temporarily held up and go out later than expected. One area that’s affected is the funding in the bipartisan infrastructure bill, much of which can’t be sent to states until that spending is appropriated by Congress. According to Warner, $364 million in roads and bridges funding and $53 million in transit funding for Virginia alone is in limbo because there aren’t full-year bills yet.

“If we just stick with the continuing resolution, that’s a lot of money that is not going to get out. It’s a problem, it certainly was not our intent,” Sen. Shelley Moore Capito (R-WV), the ranking member on the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee, previously told E&E News.

Other areas that are impacted include funding for pandemic response, investments in medical research as well as health programs for veterans. CRs also make it tough for the federal government to get money for new staffing hires, and they bar the start of spending on new programs like the infrastructure bill’s Promoting Resilient Operations for Transformative, Efficient, and Cost-saving Transportation (PROTECT) grant program, which would fund projects that make infrastructure more resilient.

“Due to the ‘No New Starts’ provision of the CR, newly created programs in the [infrastructure bill] cannot begin,” Warner wrote in his letter.

Congress’s latest continuing resolution will give lawmakers until mid-March to reach a compromise, though the ongoing conflicts they’ve had offer no guarantee that they’ll do so. Meanwhile, the consistent use of these short-term bills makes the government much less effective at spending its money, and unable to react to emerging needs various agencies have.