In a flurry of activity yesterday on Capitol Hill that had nothing to do with the snowfall, Congress avoided a government shutdown for the third time in recent months by passing another short-term funding measure to keep federal operations open for a few more weeks.
The good news is that no federal employees or service members will receive furlough notices come Saturday. The bad news is that there is still no fiscal 2024 budget in place a quarter of the way through the year, and agencies are in a rinse-and-repeat cycle of prepping for a shutdown and then being yanked off the ledge by a continuing resolution. Congress previously passed continuing resolutions on Sept. 30 and Nov. 17. The House sent the measure to the President’s desk Thursday evening.
And while a CR keeps the lights on with money locked in at fiscal 2023 levels, the budget gambit means that no new spending initiatives can proceed. Effects on agencies largely depend on how they’re funded. For example, the Department of Veterans Affairs was able to give HR employees at 15% raise starting today thanks to independent funding under the PACT Act. Other agencies that need annual appropriations may not have much wiggle room after they implemented the President’s mandated 5.2% pay raise. Some have been unable to extend offers to new hires, even if there’s a position to be filled.
“While we commend Congress for working together to avert a government shutdown, this must be the last stopgap measure for this fiscal year,” said Max Stier, president and CEO of the Partnership for Public Service, in a statement. “Repeated last-minute, short-term agreements are no way to fund our government or serve the public interest.”
The funding deadlines have been extended to March 1 and March 8. The structure of the two-step continuing resolution, which was devised by Republican House Speaker Mike Johnson in November, has been preserved, meaning upon expiration, some agencies could shut down, while others could remain open.
Funds for the departments of Agriculture, Veterans Affairs, Energy, Transportation, and Housing and Urban Development would run out first, along with certain parts of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and military construction. Everyone else — including the department of Defense and State — would be next.
It’s not clear why agencies are grouped together in the first tranche, but perhaps it’s because they fund programs, like veterans issues and transportation safety, that seemed more likely to get bipartisan support first.
“I think the choice of bedfellows was based on work that the Senate had already done that would probably be acceptable to the House,” said Tori Gorman, policy director for the Concord Coalition, a nonpartisan organization educating the public about federal budget issues.
In the end, though, policy riders about the abortion pill, Mifepristone, in the Agriculture-Food and Drug Administration bill and climate initiatives in the transportation bill have prolonged debate anyway.
Agencies have repeatedly said that while a shutdown is disruptive, so too is constantly having to prepare to initiate a lapse plan that never materializes.
“It does put handcuffs on agencies in terms of spending money, which I guess is kind of the plan to really cut government spending and reduce the size of government, and that’s what the GOP is running on, in part,” said John Mahoney, a federal employment attorney at the Law Firm of John P. Mahoney.
Before the CR passed, lawmakers made some progress in agreeing to topline appropriations levels that would set up negotiations on each of the 12 appropriations bills in the coming weeks. The deal sets non-defense spending at $772 billion and $886 billion for defense.
Additionally, the longer the government goes without a budget, the closer it gets to deadlines this year and next imposed by the debt limit deal.
The Fiscal Responsibility Act penalizes the government for not having enacted appropriations bills by January and reduces funding levels by 1% come May. A similar timeline applies for 2025.
“Republicans negotiated these same levels with the White House last June, but they immediately went back on their word because MAGA extremists demanded drastic funding cuts and extreme social policy riders,” said Rep. Betty McCollum, D-Minn., ranking member of the House Appropriations Subcommittee on Defense. “After seven wasted months, enough is enough.”
The odds of going a full year under a CR are not zero.
It is possible for short-term budgets to fund all discretionary functions for a year, according to the Committee for a Responsible Federal Budget. Even though Congress has a constitutional requirement to pass a budget, there’s no “budget jail” to really enforce that, said Gorman.
“Negotiating the top line numbers, from where I sit, that’s low hanging fruit,” said Gorman.
The labor-intensive work really begins with negotiating spending caps on each of the appropriations bills, called 302(b) allocations, and agreeing on what policy riders are adopted, she said.
“Some of these things can’t be negotiated at the staff level,” Gorman added.
The House has 12 in-session days between Friday and the first March deadline. The Senate has 17 after breaking for two weeks in February.
On only six of those days will both chambers be in session together.
Molly Weisner is a staff reporter for Federal Times where she covers labor, policy and contracting pertaining to the government workforce. She made previous stops at USA Today and McClatchy as a digital producer, and worked at The New York Times as a copy editor. Molly majored in journalism at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.