As children of all ages prepare for the festivities this weekend, Halloween means something else for Congress this year: the expiration of the first Continuing Resolution (CR). Congress is working on its second FY 2010 CR (added onto the Interior & Environment appropriations bill) which would extend FY 2009 spending levels for those bills that have not yet been enacted until December 18, 2009. To date, Congress has passed, and the President has signed, 3 of the 12 annual appropriations bills for FY 2010 (Agriculture, Homeland Security and Energy & Water). The second FY 2010 CR is expected to be signed into law within the next day or two.
CRs are a symptom of a breakdown in process. Appropriations bills are rarely passed by October 1st, the beginning of the fiscal year, and therefore CRs are used to keep the government operating in the absence of regular appropriations bills. In the last 33 years (FY 1977-FY 2010), Congress and the President have only completed action on all the bills on schedule four times: fiscal years 1977, 1989, 1995, and 1997. CRs have therefore become a regular part of the annual appropriations process, and since FY 1977, Congress has approved, on average, 5 CRs each year.
Source: CRS Report 7-5700, updated by author.
The appropriations process has slowed down, in part, because appropriations bills have become the context for debates on policy. Normally policy debates would take place in the debate over authorizing legislation. However, the authorization process has slowed, as policy debates have become more politicized and harder to resolve. The result is that policy agreements have not been reached and the appropriations bills have become a forum for the policy debates continue, instead of assuming they are resolved at the authorizing stage.
As a result, many of the regular appropriations bills have been packed into large, omnibus appropriations bills, which must be passed or the government shuts down. In addition, Congress has sometimes included supplemental appropriations in these CRs, further complicating and slowing the budgetary process.