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Explaining the 'continuing resolution'

The U.S. Capitol in Washington, D.C.

Remember the big budget deal the congress reached last month? It was designed to pave the way for passing a budget – something Washington hasn’t done in a long time.

Well, the deadline for that is next Wednesday, and it seems congress needs a little extension. Leaders in the House of Representatives say they will pass what is known as a “continuing resolution,” or a CR, to keep the government running for a few more days.

If you think it feels like the government has been lurching from continuing resolution to continuing resolution for a while now, you’re right. You could say "CR madness" dates back to 1974.

“In the wake of Watergate, when the president was at a weak moment, the Congress passed the Congressional Budget and Impoundment Act over President Nixon’s veto,” says Don Ritchie, the Historian of the United States Senate.

That law created the congressional budget committees and a new structure for budgeting.

“When they set it up, they thought it was making the system more efficient and effective,” he adds.

While the process has worked from time to time, it has also created new rivalries between budget committees and appropriations committees, between the legislative and executive branches of government.

“Before, it was seen as a stopgap measure,” says James Savage, a professor in The Woodrow Wilson Department of Politics at the University of Virginia. “Now, it is the way in which you govern.”

Lawmakers have relied on the continuing resolution more as politics have gotten more polarized.

“What’s changed is the frequency and the scope of what is covered in those bills,” Savage notes.

CRs used to be smaller, Savage says. In the 1960s, there wasn’t a single continuing resolution that funded appropriations for an entire year.

“The formulas for funding were fewer,” he explains. “You had fewer details.”

That is not as rare today.

The continuing resolution has become emblematic of the way congress operates, keeping things at status quo: the last time we’ve had a federal budget without a continuing resolution was in 1997.

About the author

David Gura is a reporter for Marketplace, based in the Washington, D.C. bureau.

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