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Monday, November 18, 2013

Automatic Continuing Resolutions: Background and Overview of Recent Proposals

Jessica Tollestrup
Analyst on Congress and the Legislative Process

Currently, 12 regular appropriations acts fund the activities of most federal government agencies. When these acts are not completed prior to the beginning of the fiscal year, Congress uses a continuing appropriations act, also known as a “continuing resolution” (CR), to provide interim funding until the annual appropriations process is complete.

Some Members of Congress have proposed legislation to establish an automatic continuing resolution (ACR) mechanism that would ensure a source of funding for discretionary spending activities at a specified level in the event that the timely enactment of appropriations was disrupted. The funding would become available automatically at any point during the fiscal year when a funding gap occurred without any further congressional action being needed, and it would remain available for the duration that the ACR mechanism was in effect.

The framework employed by ACR proposals since the early 1980s has varied along four major dimensions: whether or not the measure sunsets, the level of funding that would automatically be provided, the activities for which the funding could be used, and the duration for which the funding would be available.

Proponents of ACRs have argued that the mechanism is needed to prevent the possibility of government shutdowns and their related effects, and to promote a more deliberative and less time-pressured decision-making process. Further, proponents also have argued that adopting an ACR mechanism would make CRs a less attractive vehicle for unrelated legislative measures. In contrast, opponents of an ACR mechanism have posited that it would create an advantage for the current level of federal spending relative to other proposed levels during subsequent budget negotiations. Opponents have also claimed that the threat of a government shutdown causes serious negotiations and compromise to occur and by lessening or eliminating this threat, the enactment of regular appropriations would become more difficult. A further critique has been that an ACR mechanism would create procedural challenges under the current budget process because it would effectively establish a permanent appropriation for covered activities.

Congressional action on an ACR proposal first occurred in 1991, with hearings on H.R. 298, the Budget Process Reform Act (102
nd Congress). Action also occurred with respect to ACR proposals during five subsequent Congresses, including floor votes in the House in the 105th and 106th Congresses, and floor votes in the Senate in the 110th and 113th Congresses. During the 112th and 113th Congresses, a number of proposals have been introduced that would provide ACRs under a variety of frameworks.

As of the date of this report, the only ACR mechanism to be enacted into law is the Pay our Military Act (P.L. 113-39), which was signed by the President on September 30, 2013. P.L. 113- 39 provides an ACR mechanism to cover FY2014 pay and allowances for (1) certain members of the Armed Forces, (2) certain Department of Defense (DOD) civilian personnel, and (3) other specified DOD and Department of Homeland Security contractors. The funding level is indefinite (e.g., “such sums as are necessary”). There are currently unresolved questions, however, related to the mechanism’s possible operation during FY2014 and the first quarter of FY2015—for example, whether the automatic funding could be in effect for any funding gap that might occur in FY2014, the maximum period of availability for those funds (assuming they were not terminated through the enactment of regular or continuing appropriations), and the sunset date of the mechanism. This report will be updated once these questions are resolved.

Date of Report: October 28, 2013
Number of Pages: 21
Order Number: R41948
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