Lisa Cirincione, Senior Resource Development Associate at Joining Vision and Action

Congress has developed a habit of using continuing resolutions (CRs) as a stop-gap funding measure to keep the government open. While a CR is a useful tool when a government shutdown is looming because Congress cannot agree on a long-term spending bill, CRs were never intended to be the way that our government permanently operates. Yet, that is what it has been doing. In the last 40 years, there have only been four years when agencies have not had to operate under at least one CR.

Lately, I’ve been wondering if the use of CRs cripples federal agencies from pursuing their priorities, like spending their discretionary funding to hold grant competitions. From where I sit, there certainly seem to be fewer federal grant notices being issued lately. So, I did some research to dig into whether my hunch was correct.

So what does a CR do, anyway?

CRs keep federal agencies funded at the same level as the previous year, even if their needs have changed. The practical effect of CRs is that agencies cannot undertake new initiatives and are forced to operate in limbo because they have no certainty about how much money they are going to have. During this administration change, it might not be all bad, though. For some agencies, preserving last year’s funding amount may actually help them if they know that their budgets are likely to be cut under a new spending bill that President Trump would sign. For a list of the agencies that are expected to see their budgets reduced, see the blog I wrote last year.

The Latest Glimpse into the Federal Budget

However, CRs are still ultimately damaging to our government. Agencies operating on CRs are forced into paralysis—they cannot issue new grants, undertake a new initiative for which they did not have funding in the prior year, fill vacant positions or hire new staff (out of fear they may end up with insufficient funding to support new staff), provide full levels of service or do any long-term planning. Also, as Bill Hoagland of the Bipartisan Policy Center has noted, CRs can also spur waste, because “you also are not able to reduce and eliminate those programs that have run their lifetime … so the real cost of a CR creates inefficiencies in the way federal government should operate.”

Federal grant competitions are also reduced because agencies cannot commit to multiyear grants when they do not know how much money they will have for those programs in the coming year. Instead, grant cycles are shifted to later in the fiscal year, when agencies are more likely to know if they will have funding, or grants get renewed for shorter durations that reflect the time period that the CR covers—adding administrative costs to the grant. According to a report by the U.S. Government Accountability Office, both the Veterans Health Administration and the Administration for Children and Families reported that longer CRs caused the application time available for discretionary grants to be compressed. Further, the Department of Veterans Affairs stated that this compressed application time adversely affected the quality of submitted applications. And sometimes—and this is worse, in my opinion—agencies hold competitions with the caveat that the funding is contingent on congressional appropriations. That means that grantseekers are forced to gamble when deciding to apply, on the hope that the grant program will eventually get funded once the agency gets its congressional appropriation.

Another issue that CRs create is that awarded grant funding gets held up because of the agency’s funding uncertainty, so grant awardees are caught in the middle—unable to implement the program for which they won a grant because their funding has not become available. We are currently seeing this with the Bureau of Justice Assistance Edward Byrne Memorial Justice Assistance Grant Program grants that were awarded last year but are yet to be funded. In some cases, nonprofits have to rely on their lines of credit to bridge the gap until their grant funding is available to be drawn down.

What’s coming?

The current CR expires on February 8, and as of this blog, Congress does not seem anywhere near ready to compromise and get a spending bill passed, so our federal agencies will likely remain paralyzed and unable to carry out their plans because another short-term CR will be passed.

If you don’t like this….

Call your senators and representatives and tell them that their lack of leadership and unwillingness to compromise has been noticed and will be remembered when they run for re-election. We deserve federal agencies that are confident that they will have the resources they need to carry out their missions. We need a spending bill.

Find your elected officials here.