Tuesday, October 4, 2011

Understanding Continuing Resolutions: A Staple of Congressional Procedure

This week, Congress once again faced the task of making a last-minute deal to avert a government shutdown. Over the past nine months, this had happened several times, and the American people have become more familiar with the term “continuing resolution.”

Congressional budget and appropriations are complex topics even when everything goes as designed, which is quite rare. We are frequently left with the likes of the omnibus, minibus, unanimous consent agreements, cloture, and, of course, the continuing resolution.

As the rules of the House and Senate are written, the fiscal year runs from October 1st – September 30th. Starting on Saturday, October 1st, we began fiscal year 2012. The House and Senate are supposed to each pass budget resolutions by April 15th to determine spending caps for the appropriators. Once those caps are set, it is up to the House and Senate to determine how the money is distributed within those caps. They must pass 12 appropriations bills before September 30th to fund the upcoming fiscal year. This process involves several steps: the House and Senate write their own bills; the relevant appropriations subcommittee and appropriations full committee mark up (a process where the legislation is debated and amended) and discharge each bill; bills are considered, debated, and passed on the House and Senate floors; a conference committee works out the differences between the House and Senate bills; the House and Senate vote on an identical compromise bill; and the President signs it into law.

Has Congress ever completed the process under this timeframe? Well, since the current budgetary deadline of April 15th was set in 1985, Congress has met the target four times: 1993, 1999, 2000, and 2003. On the appropriations front, since 1977, all bills have passed before September 30th three times: 1989, 1995, and 1997. Note that none of these years correspond. Is it inefficiency? Is the process to vet these bills too cumbersome? Or is this simply part of our democratic government structure? One thing for certain is that barring an overwhelming single-party control of Congress and the presidency, it’s highly unlikely that all target deadlines will ever be met in a single year.

Hence we are left with the omnibus, minibus, unanimous consent agreements, cloture, and continuing resolution. CR’s, as they are commonly referred to inside the beltway, can provide level fund, specific cuts, across-the-board cuts, certain increases, or even new authorizations. They can fund one day or a whole year. In general, they lack the specificity you’d find in an individual appropriations bill or even an omnibus that combines several appropriations bills into one. Usually they pass without much notice or controversy. In fact, Congress passed around 150 CRs between 1977 and 2010. Yes, there were times when the last-minute deal averted shutdown, or the government in fact did shut down. However, over the past nine months, the standoffs over the CR have risen as a symbol of the current political infighting in Washington.

For community colleges, many of the discretionary programs important to our institutions have faced targeted or across-the-board cuts under continuing resolutions. Spending reductions may be necessary, but for the most part, these cuts are not vetted or examined based on need. Passing individual appropriations bills allows for greater debate, scrutiny, and compromise. The good news is that we may be moving toward that direction. All indications are that Congress will at least attempt to pass an omnibus bill before winter. This allows ACCT the opportunity to better organize and advocate priorities to members of Congress.

While the process may be frustrating and at times confusing, ACCT public policy staff is available to answer any questions. We rely on your engagement and efforts as we continue to advocate in Washington, DC.

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