What is a Continuing Resolution (CR) and how does it work? Senate.gov defines a CR as “Legislation in the form of a joint resolution enacted by Congress, when the new fiscal year is about to begin or has begun, to provide budget authority for Federal agencies and programs to continue in operation until the regular appropriations acts are enacted.”
When is a Continuing Resolution needed? Let’s take a look at a real-world example. In late 2020, there was a deadline to either pass a new budget or pass a Continuing Resolution that would allow funding and government operations to continue past the deadline.
The federal fiscal year officially ends each year in September. Federal budgets must be passed before the deadline of September 30 in order for the government to continue operating as it is expected to.
However, meeting that deadline has been a challenge for many years and it’s common in the 21st century to need a Continuing Resolution to keep the lights on until the elected officials responsible for hashing out the details can come to an agreement on the dollar amounts, specific provisions of the budget, and other details.
It became clear in early December 2020 that an agreement on a budget wouldn’t happen in time to meet the deadline and prevent a government shutdown.
When the deadline passes without a budget or a continuing resolution to temporarily fund government operations until a budget deal can be made, a shutdown is required until one or the other can pass.
The House And Senate passed a Continuing Resolution only hours before the deadline was meant to pass. It went to the President’s desk on December 11, 2020, and was signed into law in the nick of time.
With the President’s signature, temporary funding to keep the government open was approved until a full budget could be agreed upon at a later time.
In this particular case, the Continuing Resolution permitted the government to continue operating under the old year’s approved funding levels for a limited time (ten weeks in this particular case).
What Happens If A Continuing Resolution Is Not Passed?
In the above example, the Continuing Resolution is passed and the money keeps flowing. But what about in cases where the elected officials responsible for getting the work done can’t even agree on the details of a CR?
In those cases, a government shutdown is initiated. A shutdown does NOT mean a complete lack of government operations. Instead, non-essential services are cancelled, layoffs and furloughs may happen for these employees, and the day to day business of the government is negatively affected in these areas.
Military pay can be affected unless there is legislation or some other provision to prevent a delay in pay for troops. That said, the Coast Guard once experienced major delays in paying their troops during 2019 because the Department of Homeland Security (which the Coast Guard falls under) was not funded for a time. Basically, during a full shutdown, all federal agencies will follow its own shutdown program.
That program normally identifies for each agency which functions cannot continue until funding is approved.
That said, any essential services – especially those related to health and safety–are NOT shut down. In the past, the following operations have continued under government shutdowns:
- Border protection
- Inpatient medical care
- Air traffic control
- Law enforcement
- Power grid maintenance
- Certain legislative and judicial operations
Anyone who needs information about what might happen with furloughs, layoffs, or suspended work operations will need to discuss their concerns with the command support staff or civilian equivalent as each agency’s plan will be unique to the agency and not part of a more generic, standardized set of actions taken in cases like these.
Complete Shutdowns Are Not The Only Option
One nuance of the Continuing Resolution issue is that a full government shutdown may or may not happen if a CR or budget agreement cannot be reached. In 2018 and 2019 when a partial shutdown was initiated, just under 400,000 employees got furloughed, and another 400,000-plus workers showed up for work but did not get paid until the end of the shutdown.
Each shutdown event is unique–past performance does not predict future results. In the event of a full government shutdown, past experience has seen the following agencies, activities, and services negatively affected:
- Social Security and Medicare
- Environmental and Food Inspection
- National Parks
- Air Travel
- Health and Human Services
- Internal Revenue Service (IRS)
- Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP)
In some cases, such as the IRS, services didn’t shut down completely, but “newcomer services” were the most difficult to come by in such cases. Processing new applications, requests, modifications, new accounts, etc. is generally much harder during a government shutdown period.
Why The Entire Government Does Not Shut Down
The government runs on different types of funding. One type is called Discretionary Spending–these are “appropriated funds” and they have to be agreed upon year-to-year. Non-discretionary spending is either authorized permanently or in multiple years depending on the nature of the funding or other variables. The discretionary funds need to be approved year to year with a budget or extended with a CR.
Since the 1970s and until 2019, the government has had funding issues requiring the consideration of a CR or threat of a shutdown some 20 times. Some sources report that prior to 1980 there was no shutdown used, the government just kept running anyway. Since the Clinton era, there have been four of what the Committee For A Responsible Federal Budget (CFRB.org) describes as a “true” shutdown.
Two “true shutdowns” occurred between 1995-1996 when President Bill Clinton and the Republican Congress were “unable to agree on spending levels” resulting in two government shutdowns totaling 26 days. Another happened in 2013 over disputes between the House and Senate over funding for the Affordable Care Act. Bickering over healthcare resulted in the government resorting to a 16-day shutdown in that case.
The fourth, which began in December 2018 and spilled over into January 2019 happened when the President and lawmakers got into a row over controversial funding requests for projects associated with building a border wall–a project that was never completed in spite of an aggressive search for funds for the project by the executive branch.
Joe Wallace is a 13-year veteran of the United States Air Force and a former reporter for Air Force Television News
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