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What You Need to Know About Continuing Resolutions

The Brief

This explainer was last updated on March 25, 2024.

UPDATE: On March 23, 2024, Congress passed the final funding bill for fiscal year 2024, preventing a government shutdown. All appropriations bills for fiscal year 2024 have now been enacted into law. FY2024 ends on September 30, 2024.

What is a continuing resolution?

On an annual basis, Congress is responsible for providing funding for around 30% of all government functions, called discretionary spending. This funding is split up into 12 bills, which are typically due to be passed by both chambers by the start of each fiscal year on October 1, known as “regular appropriations.”

More often than not, though, Congress fails to complete all spending bills on time. A continuing resolution (CR) is a temporary “stop gap” by which Congress funds the federal government for a limited period to avoid a lapse in appropriations (more commonly referred to as a government shutdown). Lawmakers use CRs to ensure federal agencies continue operations until Congress and the President reach an agreement on how to appropriate federal funds for the rest of a fiscal year.

How does a continuing resolution work? What are the different types of CRs?

There are six main components of a CR that determine how federal agencies can operate when it is in effect:

  • Coverage: Which agencies, programs, projects, and activities are subject to the CR.
  • Duration: The timeframe over which the CR will fund those operations.
  • Rate of Operations (Funding Rate): The rate at which federal agencies can spend funds, usually expressed in annual terms (even if the CR covers less than a full year).
  • New Activities: CRs only cover initiatives funded in the previous fiscal year unless they are directed otherwise through provided legislation (a type of “anomaly”).
  • Anomalies: Legislative provisions that allow an agency’s current-year coverage and/or rate of operations to differ from the previous year’s levels, or allow for spending on specified items not ordinarily permitted during a CR.
  • Legislative Provisions: Additional legislative components that may be attached.

CRs can be enacted for part of a fiscal year (short-term CR) but can be extended or even enacted for the full year (full-year CR). CRs can also cover all or only select federal agencies, depending on the status of individual appropriations bills, and they can vary in their duration.

When Congress has passed full-year appropriations for some agencies and not others, the government is sometimes referred to as “partially funded.” When different CRs cover different agencies for different time periods, it is often called a “laddered” CR.

A “year-long” or “full-year” CR is when one or more federal agencies or programs are covered by a CR for the entire fiscal year. This has happened for all or some of the regular appropriations bills 15 times since 1977, three of which were in the 21st century: in FY2007, FY2011, and FY2013.

What’s the difference between a continuing resolution and a shutdown?

A CR is a legislative measure used by Congress to avert a government shutdown. A shutdown occurs when there is neither a full-year spending bill nor a CR in effect for a department or agency with expiring budget authority. For many parts of government, that expiration date occurs at least once annually at the end of the fiscal year. If a CR or a full-year deal is not in place when an agency’s budget authority expires, some federal agencies and programs agencies are required by the Congressional Budget and Impoundment and Control Act of 1974 to stop all programs or activities that are not critical to national security or the protection of lives or property.

How have continuing resolutions been used in the past?

CRs have become a regular tool for Congress, which repeatedly struggles to complete the annual appropriations process on time: Congress has enacted at least one CR in all but three of the past 47 fiscal years. From 2010 to 2022, policymakers passed 47 continuing resolutions ranging in duration from one to 176 days. From FY1998 to FY2023, an average of five CRs were enacted each fiscal year, though as many as 21 were implemented in one fiscal year (FY2001). In the 21st century, Congress has used CRs to provide funding for federal agencies for an average of five months each fiscal year, though lawmakers have also passed full-year CRs.

Why does Congress pass continuing resolutions?

Congress may pass a CR when it cannot reach political agreement on full-year funding, often due to divided party control in government. This includes failure to agree on any or all of the following:

  • The overall level of funding in the discretionary budget that Congress is required to pass annually (referred to as 302(a) allocations, named for the section of the 1974 Congressional Budget Act that governs the congressional budget process);
  • The subdivision of funding into the 12 appropriations bills, such as Defense, Agriculture, or Homeland Security (called 302(b) allocations); and
  • Policy provisions that are often included in appropriations bills and reflect non-budgetary priorities of the two parties, often referred to as policy “riders.”

Even when there is political agreement on some or all of the above, delays from the president, one chamber of Congress, or both chambers can prevent lawmakers from enacting full-year appropriations before October 1. For example, the House may not consider all of its appropriations bills by June 10 (required by law but without any penalty for lawmakers’ failure to act). These procedural delays can necessitate a CR even absent the political disputes outlined above.

What effects do continuing resolutions have on the federal government?

CRs can yield operational challenges and funding uncertainty for impacted agencies, including disruptions to financial planning, hiring staff, or beginning new projects and activities—demonstrating the difficulty of relying on CRs for federal budgeting. They can also place significant administrative burdens on federal agencies and waste taxpayer resources.

Many agencies’ programs may be limited or halted altogether under a CR. For instance:

  • The Department of Education cannot determine grant amounts for predominantly black institutions until Congress finalizes appropriations (whether full-year regular appropriations or a full-year CR), potentially causing delays in grant award notifications for these institutions.
  • The Department of Health and Human Services and its grantees can struggle to provide summer cooling assistance to households under the Low Income Home Energy Assistance Program (LIHEAP).
  • Property managers working with the Department of Agriculture on its Section 521 program providing rental assistance to rural tenants can experience weeks-long payment delays during a CR.
  • The Department of Commerce can delay or cancel critical field testing of modernized surveying technology, which can have negative downstream impacts on the quality of household and economic survey data that Congress, other government agencies, and the business community depend on.

In addition to these effects, the rate of spending during a CR can create problems even after full-year spending is passed, especially if it comes late in the fiscal year. For example, if the spending level is cut in an agency’s final appropriation, but the agency had been operating at a higher, prior-year annualized rate under the CR, it may have to drastically adjust operations during the latter months of the fiscal year to avoid overspending. This can mean sharp decreases in services, activities, or even stopping ongoing projects. Conversely, if the appropriation is at a higher level than covered during the CR, the agency may be incentivized to accelerate spending in the final months of the fiscal year, which can lead to wasteful spending on unneeded goods or services.

Just as important, a CR leaves federal agencies stuck on the funding levels and policy directives of the prior year, even though public needs and program priorities change on a consistent basis. For example, federal agencies are stuck in early 2024 on spending laws that were put in place in December 2022, over a year prior.

What are the effects of a CR that lasts the whole year?

Before FY2024 appropriations were completed in March 2024, some lawmakers had discussed enacting a year-long CR. Other lawmakers in both parties, and some federal officials, have pointed to the numerous ways in which a year-long CR—while preferable to a government shutdown—could disrupt federal agencies and programs:

A CR leaves federal agencies and departments with limited flexibility to adapt to shifting program needs and requirements, forcing programs to operate as if the current budget year is largely the same as the last one, when no two budget years are the same.

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