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The Real Problem With Short-Term Continuing Resolutions

Short-Term Continuing Resolutions and creates more wasteful spending. Why do we do it?


Now that Congress has avoided the debt ceiling fiasco that Harry Reid warned us about, we look at the details and see a deal that propagates one of Washington’s greatest problems–the short-term Continuing Resolution (CR).

Thanks to the unwillingness of the Senate to pass a budget, we’ve lived on CRs for years now. They’re typically only good for a few months while each side jockeys for position for the next debate over the next CR. As a result, everything continues relatively status quo from crisis to crisis.

The problems with this approach to federal fiscal management are clear. When we utilize the normal budget process, there is a debate about how much we should spend in a specific department and those amounts are set. A budget becomes law and the result is predictability of funds for the next year for each of the various government agencies. CRs avoid all of this planning and accountability.

Ignoring the question of whether we should be spending money on the various things we do, I want government to spend money well whenever they do so. That is where short-term CRs become truly problematic.

Similar to the current agreement, short-term CRs usually last for around three months at a time carrying current spending levels forward either unchanged or with minimal adjustment. While that may sound like an acceptable or at least tolerable fix while the political parties look for a long-term solution, the havoc it wreaks on federal agencies is enormous.

A short-term CR only grants money for the approved period of time (in the case of the current CR, three months). So the effect of this CR will be that instead of an entire year of budget dollars available, only 1/4 is available for 1/4 of the budget year. We get to go through this circus again in January.

Only having 1/4 of your annual budget is fine for things like paying salaries of employees, but is horrible for project management. As one Navy staffer in charge of major IT projects told me, instead of having a whole year of funds available to implement a big project like a significant IT upgrade, he only has 1/4 of the money available, which is often not enough to even get a project started. And if you can get it started, you don’t know if you can finish it.

CRs also wreak havoc on implementation. My Navy friend said, “Say you need to spend 90% of your travel budget on implementation of a big project. But because you only have 25% of the money available due to the time limit on the CR, that’s all I can spend, which means either the project doesn’t get done or I send, say, two people to do the job of eight people and end up paying a lot of unnecessary overtime.”

I know another person who works for the Department of Energy who tells me similar stories. “Because you don’t have a year’s worth of funds available, you can’t afford to start new projects. But you don’t want to lose the talent you have in case normal funding returns so you pay them to sit around and do nothing.”

Another problem is what a short-term CR says to project managers–essentially, “We expect to spend money at this level for the foreseeable future but reserve the right a few months into the year to change our minds.” So even if someone can get a project started with the funds available in the partial-year CR, managers often don’t do it because they don’t want to be stuck in the middle of a project with money no longer available and no way to finish the work.

Before you think that keeping major federal government projects from starting in the first place is a beneficial to us taxpayers, consider what another government employee said to me about the effect short-term CRs have on actual spending. “Given that we only have 1/4 of the money in a given year available, emergencies come up that force senior management to take funds from your area and move them to pay for other situations. You don’t want them to take the money from your area because it deems your work as less important, so managers regularly blow their entire budget in the first two weeks of a CR just to make their money isn’t taken away and that everyone knows your work needs more funding.”

This ridiculous situation skews the entire system of federal spending towards even more wasteful spending that never fulfills our actual needs. It is one of the truly terrible things about the fact that Congress and the President have failed to complete the normal budget process one more time.

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