The High Cost of Stop-Gap Budget Measures

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No sooner had Congress approved its fourth budget stop-gap measure in four months than lawmakers began talking about the need for a fifth one in February.

On Wednesday the No. 2 Republican in the Senate, Majority Whip John Cornyn, raised the possibility that “we may be talking about March” before lawmakers can reach an agreement on spending caps and a final catch-all spending bill for the current fiscal year.

Several more weeks would then be required to write up and pass the necessary legislation. This means Fiscal 2018, which began Oct. 1, could well be half over by the time Congress approves a final spending plan for the year.

In the meantime, Congress will be relying on short-term measures known as “continuing resolutions.” These are generally described as continuing current funding levels, although lawmakers in both parties have frequently sought and sometimes succeeded in attaching additional provisions.

Final spending plans for the current fiscal year should have been completed in late summer or early fall last year. But in all but four of the last 40 years, according to the Government Accountability Office (GAO), Congress has relied on continuing resolutions.

The habitual use of these short-term spending measures reflects congressional failure on one of lawmakers’ most fundamental responsibilities. Beyond the embarrassment for lawmakers, however, continuing resolutions are expensive for taxpayers.

That’s because funding is generally continued despite changing needs and priorities. Problems are kicked down the road rather than resolved.

In addition, continuing resolutions make it difficult for federal agencies and departments to plan and operate efficiently. Final decisions often can’t be made on contracts, personnel changes and planned programs.

Military officials, for example, estimated in December that continuing resolutions had caused the Navy to waste $4 billion since 2011.

“We have put $4 billion in a trash can, poured lighter fluid on it, and burned it,” Navy Secretary Richard Spencer said in a Washington forum. “Four billion is enough to buy a squadron of F-35s, two Arleigh Burke-class destroyers, 3,000 Harpoon missiles. It’s enough money to buy us additional capacity that we need. Instead, it’s lost, because of inefficacy in the ways of the continuing resolution.”

The damage, waste and inefficiencies from continuing resolutions are hardly limited to the military, however.

Public health agencies say, for example, that the short-term measures are hurting their ability to plan and to recruit staff members. These agencies are left in “a state of suspended animation,” says Ellie Dehoney, vice president of policy and advocacy at Research!America.

The GAO has expressed concern for years about the cost of continuing resolutions and other sources of budgetary uncertainty and disruptions.

In testimony to Congress last September, an official with GAO said federal agency officials had reported taking “varied actions to manage inefficiencies” resulting from continuing resolutions.  She also said the use of short-term measures can continue to present challenges to federal managers even after Congress finally approves full-year appropriations.

And as we have just seen, continuing resolutions can sometimes lead to partial government shutdowns, which are even more wasteful and costly.

Once the final spending bills are passed, lawmakers often adopt an upbeat “All’s well that ends well” attitude. Often they are congratulating themselves and heaping praise on each other for a job well done.

But in fact their failure to pass spending legislation in a timely fashion has created months of governmental chaos, long-lasting inefficiencies and wasted tax dollars.

Lawmakers in both parties should aim to do better.

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