Skip to main content

Impacts of a Continuing Resolution

Life Under a CR

 

Continuing Resolutions (CR) are a stop-gap measure implemented when Congress is unable to produce a budget before the start of the fiscal year, which can happen for a wide variety of reasons. CRs are bills that extend the previous fiscal year’s budget until a specified date, though they can include adjustments – referred to as anomalies – that allow for increases for specific accounts so that they can continue operations. These are typically either must-fund agencies like the Department of Defense, or long-term projects for whom a funding cut would mean significant problems – like NASA missions. 

The CR must be voted on by both the House and the Senate before being signed into law by the President, and oftentimes several CRs will be signed in one year as Congress may require multiple extensions to finish negotiating the appropriations bills. In fact, over the last 46 years, there has been an average of 4.3 CRs enacted per year, with only three of those years not requiring a single CR. The government has operated, on average, 180 days of the fiscal year under a CR. If you skip past the extremely full-year-CR-prone 80s, the average over the last 33 years has been 4.7 CRs lasting 124 days. This is not an insignificant amount of time to be operating under financial constraints.1 

 

A graph showing the number and duration of continuing resolutions for each year since 1977. Data in the graph is available upon request to azimmermann@aaas.org

 

Not every agency is impacted by CRs the same, because not all CRs cover every agency. While every appropriations subcommittee has jurisdiction over agencies that are crucial to the functioning of the U.S. government, some agencies are considered more crucial. The operation of our offensive and defensive capabilities is considered extremely important, so related agencies, and the bills that have jurisdiction over them, may be prioritized in negotiations and thus be resolved more quickly than others.  This results in the Homeland Security and Defense subcommittees spending less than a month under CR on average between 1999 and 2009.2 In terms of R&D funding across the agencies, Defense contains a significant chunk – over half of it. However, other R&D intensive subcommittees like Labor-HHS and Commerce-Justice-Science are the ones that spent the most time under a CR, with 96 and 89 days respectively. 

 

Average number of days under a CR by subcommittee, between 1999 and 2009. Data in the graph is available upon request to azimmermann@aaas.org

 

Since a CR is by definition a continuation of the previous year’s appropriations, CRs aren’t just keeping the budget flat – they also involve a freeze on any new projects and their associated spending. Newly authorized programs may functionally exist, but under a CR they are not appropriated any funding and thus cannot fund, hire or otherwise staff new initiatives until regular appropriations begins. This can mean delays to funding calls, less time to apply for funding opportunities than predicted or intensifying competition on research grants, or decreases in award sizes3 as planned increases are pushed back. VA employees interviewed in a GAO survey stated that the shorter submission window decreased the quality of applications due to their inability to fully compete and award contracts.4

Earmarks, hundreds of which each year are used to fund research related activities, are not sustained during a CR. That means that all the construction of facilities, workforce development, data collection and monitoring activities, or even full research projects that would be funded through earmarks are delayed until the start of regular appropriations – or in the case of a full-year CR, would never get funded at all. 

It also changes how agencies spend their funding on current projects – with agencies shifting to work on lower-priority items that can be completed quickly instead of longer-term ones that might run out of funding before regular appropriations kicks in.5 Research and medical programs have also reported that the funding hills and valleys impact what they buy, with only the bare minimum purchased under a CR and then a mad dash to spend a full year’s appropriation in a couple months. This results in over-purchasing of non-perishables near the end of the fiscal year to use up remaining budget on items that can carry over into the next fiscal year. 

Even hiring for existing projects is complicated under a CR – contracts must be adjusted to match the duration of known funding, leading to many short-term contracts and even the lapsing of previously negotiated agreements.5 In an R&D context, contracts are likely to be focused on scientific infrastructure, either the buildings themselves or the administrative workforce that allows researchers to perform their duties.

It's not just contractors that are impacted by funding austerity, federal employees can also see cuts, though agencies will do their best to avoid it. One example of this in the current CR – though the CR is not the only contributing factor – is NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, which not only could not hire extra staff this year, but actually had to layoff staff to maintain its Mars Sample Return mission goals.6 While an outcome this dire is not common amongst the agencies, financial constraints on projects that have pre-planned cycles of growth can lead to the tough decision between keeping staff or following the mission’s directives. 

Even once a CR is over and full-time staff can be hired to fill gaps, it takes time to train them to perform their duties. This delay, on top of the delay of the hiring freeze, means that services can operate at reduced capacity for even longer.

And it’s not just spending that is impacted by CRs; CRs are huge administrative lifts that require personnel hours that could otherwise go to providing services. Filing for all the aforementioned short-term contracts takes time, not to mention creating and revising spending plans and filing for anomalies to be included in the lead-up to a CR and preparing for a potential shutdown as the deadline approaches. These administrative tasks take away from providing the agency’s services – and must often be done with fewer staff since they cannot hire new employees to fill staffing gaps due to the funding constraints.  All this means that not only are agencies not experiencing funding growth, CRs actively cost money as work hours are dedicated to the management of CR-related tasks instead of core duties. 

These impacts of CRs are particularly burdensome on agency function if they are frequent or cumulatively last a long time. Frequent CRs cost a lot in administrative time, requiring constant updates and diverting agency resources away from their missions. Long CRs can significantly hinder agency strategic plans, delaying program goals, research grants, and forcing hiring freezes. 

Agencies aren’t new to CRs; in the last 46 years there have only been three years without a CR of some sort in place. This means that agencies have learned to adapt to the realities of oscillating funding. Many agencies have shifted the start of timely projects away from the beginning of the fiscal year when possible; for example, the Department of Defense spends the smallest percentage of its annual obligations in the first quarter.7 Contract and grant cycles for many agencies have also shifted towards the end of the fiscal year.5

To allow for some flexibility in spending, some agencies have been shifting towards writing text to provide guidance on spending instead of specific dollar amounts for projects.4 This, along with the insertion of anomalies – or inclusions for additional spending in the text of the CR – allows agencies more freedom to maintain as close to regular operations as possible even under tightened budgets. 

In summary, living under a CR is never ideal – programs can’t grow, staff can’t be hired, and it diverts time away from core functions. CRs are common in the American budget process, and agencies have adapted to the reality of them, and have learned how to mitigate the impacts as best they can because science doesn’t stop under a CR – only gets slowed down. 

 

References

1 -Duration of Continuing Resolutions in Recent Years (2012) Congressional Research Service RL32614
https://www.everycrsreport.com/reports/RL32614.html#_Toc314822222

2- CONTINUING RESOLUTIONS: Uncertainty Limited Management Options and Increased Workload in Selected Agencies (2009) Government Accountability Office GAO-09-879 https://www.gao.gov/assets/gao-09-879.pdf

3- Interim FY24 funding line policy update (2023) National Institute on Aging
https://www.nia.nih.gov/research/blog/2023/12/interim-fy24-funding-line-policy-update

4- BUDGET ISSUES: Effects of Budget Uncertainty from Continuing Resolutions on Agency Operations (2013) Government Accountability Office GAO-13-464T 
https://www.gao.gov/assets/gao-13-464t.pdf

5- BUDGET ISSUES: Continuing Resolutions and Other Budget Uncertainties Present Management Challenges (2018) Government Accountability Office GAO-18-368T 
https://www.gao.gov/assets/gao-18-368t.pdf

6- JPL Workforce Update (2024) NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory
https://www.jpl.nasa.gov/news/jpl-workforce-update

7- DEFENSE BUDGET: DOD Has Adopted Practices to Manage within the Constraints of Continuing Resolutions (2021) Government Accountability Office GAO-21-541 
https://www.gao.gov/assets/gao-21-541.pdf