Robin Smith / February 19, 2018

How Continuing Resolutions Create More Debt

Earmarks were bad for the budget, but negligence of constitutional budget duties is far worse.

In February 2011, House Republicans, fresh off their 2010 election victory, imposed a ban on congressional earmarks as part of their pledge to cut spending and govern in a fiscally conservative manner. Despite some recent flirting with the idea of ending the ban, it has not been lifted. Yet.

The practice of feathering one’s political nest by inserting earmarks or designated spending provisions into an appropriations bill without going through the merit-based process or committee was key to district projects that were regularly featured in the Citizens Against Government Waste’s infamous Congressional Pig Book. The habit of pork-barrel spending was made easy by attaching an earmark and swapping votes for hometown projects, but it came to an end with the Tea Party era, which brought in a Republican House Majority.

Sure, applause is appropriate. And yet, the stated goal to govern as principled fiscal conservatives sounds good and sells on the campaign trail, but it’s not a reality in Washington, DC. Meet the real budget buster — the continuing resolution.

A continuing resolution permits temporary funding for operations, personnel and equipment for government departments, agencies and programs on a temporary basis, supposedly to serve as a stopgap measure between budgets. Pathetically, over the last 40 years, only four years have not included a CR or continuing resolution. According to the Peter G. Peterson Foundation, since 1998, just 20 years ago, Congress has been forced to pass an astounding 114 CR’s due to its members’ failure to do their constitutional duty. Just in this current fiscal year that began Oct. 1, 2017, there have already been five CRs, with an approaching deadline of March 23, 2018, to keep the government funded.


Well, the House did its job in 2017. All 12 of the standing committees met, performed their constitutional duties to prepare outlays for agencies under their respective oversight and jurisdiction and held formal budget hearings to pass a budget. The Senate, on the other hand, gets the award for most dysfunctional body of highly paid people in failing to reconcile a budget, again, to keep the government operating instead of short-term fixes of temporary spending proposals.

With each of these CR negotiations, typically scripted with votes around midnight or into the early hours of the morning, holdouts received funding boosts to political agenda items in exchange for supportive votes to keep the government from shutting down.

In that same 20-year window using 114 CRs, the federal budget has exploded from $1.7 trillion to $4.1 trillion. And what has happened to America’s deficit spending each of those same years? In 1998, Bill Clinton paired with a GOP Congress to create a $69 billion surplus. In 2017, Donald Trump and Republican majorities in Congress produced an eerie deficit of $666 billion. Yes, a sign of the Beast.

In the simplest terms, the use of continuing resolutions permits procrastination and complacency of an already slow-moving body. The CRs circumvent the constitutional budget process that was meant to steward the tax dollars of citizens, and instead our “representatives” create a periodic showdown or shutdown that always includes increased spending. But hampering any possible efficiencies, short-term spending hurts long-term projects within the military and key programs that involve infrastructure and planning.

Yes, there is a simple answer. The budget process is time-consuming and requires prioritizing spending for essential services and programs. If this Republican president and this Republican congressional majority can’t create a responsible budget, today’s $20 trillion-and-growing debt will soon be $25 trillion, if not more. We need continuing resolve, not another resolution.

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