WASHINGTON ― A continuing resolution, or CR, is a temporary measure Congress can use to fund the government for a limited time. CRs are typically used to buy time for lawmakers to enact longer-term spending measures.
The passage of a CR usually means the regular process of passing the 12 appropriations bills by the start of the fiscal year has failed because of a standoff between political parties, or between Congress and the president.
While that’s not unusual, the Defense Department — as of mid-November 2019 — has operated under a CR for an average of 119 days per year during the last nine years, compared to an average of 32 days per year during the previous seven, according to the Congressional Research Service.
If Congress and the president fail to act, the government shuts down. Federal agencies are typically disrupted; nonessential operations are suspended, and federal employees and government contractors are left in limbo.
Because a CR will continue the funding rates of the previous year’s appropriations acts, it may bar an agency from starting or resuming a project for which there were no funds the previous year. Before the start of fiscal 2018, for example, the Pentagon identified 75 weapons programs that would experience delays because of the CR’s prohibition on starting new programs and because quantities would be restricted on 40 programs.
CRs may also include exceptions, commonly called anomalies. Those exceptions are meant to insulate some operations from potentially adverse effects of a CR while providing time for Congress and the president to agree on full-year appropriations and avoid a government shutdown. For example, one of the CRs for fiscal 2017 contained anomalies for the Columbia-class ballistic missile submarine, the UH-60M Black Hawk and the Air Force’s KC-46A tanker.
The Defense Department will typically raise alarms about CRs when there is potential for a full-year CR, which would leave spending at the previous year’s level. For example, the Army previously said it was waiting for 2020 appropriations before it could begin 79 new start programs ― which amounted to $1.9 billion in planned investment ― and increase production for 37 programs totaling $1.6 billion, among other impacts.
“By its very nature, an interim CR limits an agency’s ability to take advantage of efficiencies through bulk buys and multi-year contracts,” according to a Congressional Research Service report published Aug. 15, 2019.
“It can foster inefficiencies by requiring short-term contracts that must be reissued once additional funding is provided, requiring additional or repetitive contracting actions," the report said. "On the other hand, there is little evidence one way or the other as to whether the military effectiveness of U.S. forces has been fundamentally degraded by the limitations imposed by repeated CRs of months-long duration.”
Joe Gould was the senior Pentagon reporter for Defense News, covering the intersection of national security policy, politics and the defense industry. He had previously served as Congress reporter.