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Will Congress Have A Quiet Holiday Season?

A pre-Thanksgiving look at how Congress averted a shutdown last week – and what happens next.

Federal agencies already have received what they wanted from Congress this holiday season: There will be no government shutdown in 2023. Before departing for their Thanksgiving break last week, lawmakers approved another short-term fiscal year 2024 funding agreement, their second of the year.

The votes in favor of the agreement were overwhelming. The House approved the legislation by a 336-95 margin while the Senate vote was 87-11.

How did this bipartisan agreement come about, what was in the bill, when will it expire, and what can we expect at the next deadline?

We will answer those questions this week, but let’s first take a look at exactly how dependent Congress has become on short-term funding agreements, also known as “continuing resolutions” (CRs).

When It Comes To Discretionary Spending, Congress Routinely Kicks The Can Down The Road

Congress’ 12 annual spending bills provide funding for all of the federal government’s discretionary spending programs, or about 30 percent of the federal budget. (Other programs, like Social Security and Medicare, are mandatory — their annual funding levels are generally on autopilot — so Congress has no say in how much those programs spend unless lawmakers approve legislation that fundamentally changes these programs.)

In times past, Congress would enact all 12 individual spending bills, funding the government for a year at a time. But according to a 2012 report from the Congressional Research Service, Congress’s nonpartisan research arm, times have changed. Over the last several decades, lawmakers have increasingly resorted to CRs to keep discretionary spending going. “Over the past half century, the timing patterns for congressional action on regular appropriations acts have varied considerably, but tardy enactment has been a recurring problem,” CRS said.

In fiscal year 1977, Congress met all of its deadlines. Each of the regular appropriations bills was enacted by the end of the fiscal year on September 30. (The federal government’s fiscal year used to extend from July 1 of one year to June 30 the next year, but that changed in fiscal year 1977.)

But between fiscal years 1978 and 2012, all regular appropriations acts were enacted on time only three times: fiscal year 1989, fiscal year 1995, and fiscal year 1997. During that period, a total of 161 CRs were enacted into law. The highest number of continuing resolutions in a single year during that period was 21. On average, about six CRs were enacted each fiscal year during that interval.

Congress has not done any better since CRS issued that report more than a decade ago. In fact, not once since fiscal year 2012 have lawmakers approved all 12 spending bills before the annual September 30 deadline. According to the Pew Research Center, since the mid-1990s, Congress has never passed more than five of its 12 regular appropriations bills on time. In 11 of the past 13 fiscal years, lawmakers have not passed a single spending bill by September 30.

This year was no different.

How Did The Latest Continuing Resolution Come About?

Federal lawmakers approved the first fiscal year 2024 CR in late September, when former House Speaker Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.) was still occupying the top leadership role in the House. Speaker McCarthy was, of course, ousted after, and because of, that vote.

Current Speaker Mike Johnson (R-La.) was elected three weeks later. It was up to him to avoid another government shutdown.

He had until November 17, when the first fiscal year 2024 CR expired, to do so.

After attempting to get the House to approve a few standalone spending bills, Speaker Johnson conceded that, to avert a government shutdown, his party would need to approve a “clean” CR — a bill with no controversial policy riders. Speaker Johnson also signaled his party would not use the CR to reduce federal spending.

While warning the speaker’s plan was “far from perfect,” Majority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.) said on the Senate floor that he was “pleased that Speaker Johnson seems to be moving in our direction by advancing a CR that does not include the highly partisan cuts that Democrats have warned against.” (Fiscal conservatives threatened to rebel, meanwhile.)

A clean bill is what the White House and Democrats in Congress wanted all along, but Speaker Johnson did add a twist. In early November, he floated the idea for splitting the continuing resolution into two … kind of.

When Will The Continuing Resolution Expire?

While the second fiscal year 2024 continuing resolution was approved as a single bill, it takes a unique approach to determining when funding streams for agencies expire. As the National Association of Counties explained, the “laddered” continuing resolution has two separate expiration dates:

  • On January 19, 2024, funding for four appropriations bills will expire. These bills provide funding for the Department of Agriculture and rural development programs; military construction and the Department of Veterans Affairs; water programs and the Department of Energy; and the Departments of Transportation and Housing and Urban Development.

  • On February 2, 2024, funding for the remaining annual spending bills — commerce, justice, and science; defense; financial services and general government; homeland security; interior and environment; labor, health and human services, and education; the legislative branch; and the Department of State and foreign operations — expire.

While Democrats argue a laddered continuing resolution will make it more likely that at least some federal agencies are shutdown in January, Speaker Johnson likely chose this approach to satisfy fiscal conservatives in his caucus.

Readers may recall that when former Speaker McCarthy was elected to that office last January, he pledged not to put forward “omnibus” spending bills, or appropriations legislation that includes all 12 annual spending bills. The laddered mechanism, as The Hill has noted, allows Speaker Johnson to keep that pledge, at least technically.

What Else Is In The Continuing Resolution?

While the continuing resolution approved by Congress last week does not include funding cuts or controversial policy riders, lawmakers did use it as a vehicle to approve other must-pass legislation.

The second continuing resolution extended authorization for the National Flood Insurance Program and Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF) program through February 2, 2024.

TANF provides states with flexibility in operating programs designed that help low-income families with children. The NFIP provides insurance to homeowners and businesses in flood-prone areas. If Congress let NFIP expire, the program would not be able to provide new flood insurance contracts to homeowners and its borrowing authority would be severely curtailed. Without adequate borrowing authority, NFIP could not pay homeowner and small business disaster claims in a timely manner.

The second fiscal year 2024 CR also extends Farm Bill authorization until September 30, 2024. The Farm Bill governs an array of agricultural and nutrition programs, including support for major commodity crops like wheat, corn, and soybeans and nutrition assistance for low-income households through programs like the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program. Both chambers of Congress have yet to even introduce their versions of the five-year Farm Bill reauthorization this session, so an extension was necessary.

Finally, as the American Hospital Association pointed out, the second CR also addresses important healthcare priorities. Specifically, it delays funding cuts for Medicaid Disproportionate Share Hospital, which serve patients struggling with poverty; extends authorizations for community health centers, the National Health Service Corps, and Teaching Health Center Graduate Medical Education; and delays cuts in funding for clinical labs.

The first fiscal year 2024 CR, which Congress approved in September, and which expired November 17, extended authorization for the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) through December 31, 2024. The new CR did not further extend that timeline, so lawmakers will have to deal with this issue when they return from Thanksgiving break. As we have written before, when Congress allowed FAA authorization to expire for two weeks in 2011, 200 FAA-funded construction projects were halted, and $2.5 billion in grants to new airport projects were withheld, affecting more than 70,000 construction jobs. A partial FAA shutdown now could make a dent in economic growth, and it would increase congestion at the nation’s airports by causing flight delays.

Where Do We Go From Here?

With the December holiday and new year breaks, lawmakers will have very little time to negotiate a new federal spending deal.

According to news reports, Speaker Johnson intends to get right back to negotiating after the Thanksgiving break. In the coming weeks, Congress also could tackle the White House’s emergency funding requests for Ukraine and Israel and consider the National Defense Authorization Act, an annual defense policy bill for which Congress has never missed its self-imposed December 31 deadline.

How likely is it that these fights will erupt into inertia and a shutdown? “We’re fighting,” said Speaker Johnson after the House approved the latest CR. “But you have to be wise about choosing the fights. You gotta fight fights that you can win. And we’re going to. “

Happy Thanksgiving.

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