1. This year Congress extended the appropriations deadline to December 11.
On October 1, 2020, after Congress failed to pass the appropriation bills that fund the operations of the federal government, President Trump signed a bipartisan continuing resolution, providing federal funding until December 11. Congress, now in a lame-duck session, must pass the 12 appropriation bills or another continuing resolution to extend the deadline further. Although funding for specific departments, agencies, and programs has not been agreed on yet, the budget cap for the 2021 fiscal year — set by the Budget Control Act of 2011 — is set at $740 billion in defense spending and $635 billion in non-defense spending. Currently, the House has passed 10 of the 12 spending bills, while the Senate has passed none.
2. Congress is supposed to follow an annual procedure for passing appropriation bills.
Under the Congressional Budget Control Act the president is supposed to submit a budget proposal to Congress by the first week in February that outlines spending for the next fiscal year. Congress is then supposed to adopt a concurrent budget resolution, informed by the president’s proposal, by April 15. In recent years, however, Congress has rarely passed budget resolutions on time and since 2010 has failed to pass them altogether for eight fiscal years. Over the summer and fall, the Senate and the House Committees on Appropriations are supposed to meet in their 12 subcommittees and each draft their own bill to fund the respective parts of the government. Congress has often combined some or all of the 12 bills into one or more “omnibus” appropriation measure. After the Senate and the House Committees report back to their chambers, the bills are supposed to be considered on the floor for a vote. Once the bills are passed, the president can sign them into law. Since most federal funding expires at the end of the fiscal year on September 30, spending bills must be passed by October 1.
3. Since appropriation bills are rarely passed on time, Congress regularly uses continuing resolutions.
Continuing resolutions (CR) extend the deadline for appropriations by providing temporary funding to federal programs at a similar level as the previous fiscal year. They are passed through a joint resolution and have recently lasted from 1 to 187 days or until Congress passes the regular appropriation bills. Some years CRs have been used as funding for the entire year. For example, in the 2013 fiscal year a full year CR covered seven regular appropriation bills. Congress has used CRs in 40 of the last 44 fiscal years. 1977, 1989, 1995 and 1997 were the only years when all the appropriation bills were passed on time. Since 1977 there have been an average of 4.6 CRs per fiscal year.
4. If Congress and the president cannot reach agreement on appropriations or a CR by December 11, the federal government will shut down
Under the Anti-deficiency Act if the federal government is not funded by appropriation bills or continuing resolutions, it must cease all non-essential operations. The effects of federal government shutdowns vary and the government can furlough none, some, or all non-essential employees, close national parks and institutes, delay the issuance of government-backed loans or mortgages, curtail military veteran benefits or suspend grantmaking or other operations at federal agencies such as the Centers for Disease Control. Since 1980 there have been 16 shutdowns, 10 of which involved furloughs. The most consequential shutdowns were in 2013 and in 2018-2019. The 2013 shutdown lasted 16 days, cost the economy around $24 billion according to the Standard and Poor’s rating agency, and furloughed 800,000 employees. The 2018-2019 shutdown lasted 35 days, cost the economy $11 billion according to the Congressional Budget Office, and furloughed 380,000 employees.
5. Members of Congress have recently held up appropriations to address other policy priorities, since the federal government cannot function without them.
In 2013 House Republicans used the appropriation process to delay funding for the Affordable Care Act. After Congress failed to pass the annual spending bill by October 1, the federal government shut down. Ultimately, the House Republicans backed down and Congress passed a continuing resolution with no funding removed from the Affordable Care Act. In 2018 President Donald Trump, backed by Senate Republicans, demanded that $5.7 billion for a U.S.-Mexico border wall be included in the annual budget, while the Democratic-controlled House refused to pass a bill with border funds. Following a 35-day government shutdown, Congress passed a continuing resolution without border wall funds, reopening the government for three weeks. After weeks of negotiations the final appropriation bill was signed into law on February 15, including $1.4 billion of border fencing funds.
This article first appeared in Real Clear Policy