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Tick Tock – The Perennial Countdown to Fund the Federal Government

Analysis Craig Lasher, Senior Fellow

Congress has until this Friday to pass another funding bill—a continuing resolution (CR)—to keep most of the federal government operating, at least for the time being. This is just the latest countdown to a crisis that has become all too common in Washington.

CRs are typically formulaic and simply continue funding levels and program policies contained in the final appropriations legislation from the prior fiscal year (FY), usually with a limited number of exceptions (“anomalies”). CRs are viewed by policymakers of all political persuasions as a highly inefficient and disruptive mechanism for funding the government–unable to react to changing circumstances and to respond to new developments and challenges at home and abroad.

The current CR was adopted on September 28th, only two days before the start of the new 2017 fiscal year.  Congress adjourned for the election and did not reconvene for a “lame-duck” session until just last week. In the interim, House and Senate appropriators worked diligently to negotiate an omnibus package that would have included important adjustments to the funding and policies of a myriad of federal programs across appropriations bills and were reportedly very close to a bipartisan deal.

Although it is unclear what agreements on international family planning and reproductive health (FP/RH) may have been forged in the “room where it happens,” it seems plausible that the status quo might have been preserved for the seventh year in a row—more or less level bilateral FP/RH funding, a U.S. contribution to the UN Population Fund (UNFPA), and no new hostile policy riders like the Global Gag Rule.

Unfortunately, hopes for congressional passage of an FY 2017 omnibus package were quickly dashed when House Republican leaders, yielding to the wishes of an incoming Trump administration and demands from the House Freedom Caucus decided to move toward passing another short-term CR,  punting a final funding decision until the end of April.

Rep. Rodney Frelinghuysen (R-NJ), the newly selected Chairman of House Appropriation Committee for the incoming 115th Congress, made the obligatory pledge of a return to “regular order” under his leadership in which all 12 appropriations bills are passed by Congress and sent to the President for his signature. Whether having one party controlling the White House and both houses of Congress will enhance the prospects of appropriations bill enactment remains to be seen, but recent history does not provide much ground for optimism and gridlock seems likely to persist.

So how have funds for international affairs programs, including those for FP/RH and other global health priorities, been appropriated since FY 2000?

The chart below provides information for each of the last 17 fiscal years detailing the type of legislative vehicle (either a freestanding bill, a CR, or an omnibus package), how many CRs were required to keep the government open before the final appropriations legislation was passed, and how late into the fiscal year before finalized.

Chart 1

The last time a freestanding foreign operations appropriations bill was passed by Congress and signed into law was FY 2006—11 years ago. Since 2005, Congress has resorted to either omnibus packages or full-year CRs, encompassing half to all 12 appropriations bills in the final legislative vehicle. In fact, over the last 17 fiscal years, the foreign ops bill has been separately enacted in only three of those years. However, none of those three bills were completed before the start of the fiscal year.

The difficulty that Congress has faced in getting to a final resolution to the appropriations process is graphically illustrated in the chart by the number of short-term CRs that have been required to keep the government open—reaching a high of 21 CRs in FY 2002—and how many months into the fiscal year a stalemate persisted—the longest delay being until mid-April during FY 2011, nearly seven months after the start of the fiscal year. Sadly, the deadline for the FY 2018 CR that Congress must pass by Friday will be April 28, setting a new record for the delay in final action.

While perhaps to be welcomed from the perspective of good government and effective legislating, a return to “true regular order” in which State-foreign ops bills are debated, amended, and passed on the floor of both the House and Senate would not be a positive development for foreign assistance and diplomacy, especially for international FP/RH programs. Rank-and-file members cannot resist the opportunity play Secretary of State for the day by offering ill-informed amendments, and there is very little good that can come from putting the State-foreign ops bill on the floor of either chamber for a myriad of foreign policy issues. Fortunately, the last time there was floor action on a freestanding foreign assistance appropriations bill was September 2007 (FY 2008) in the Senate and July 2009 (FY 2010) in the House.

For the purpose of illustrating the likely jeopardy faced by FP/RH programs during a floor debate, it is worth noting that the House did also more recently debate foreign aid issues under an open rule on a multiple-bill FY 2011 spending package in April 2011. Predictably, floor action resulted in the threatening or the offering and eventual withdrawal of two hostile, anti-FP/RH amendments—respectively, an improperly-drafted Latta (R-OH) amendment to zero-out all FP/RH funding and a Fortenberry (R-NE) amendment to ban the use of U.S. funds for “sterilization campaigns.” To make matters worse, these scorched-earth amendments were contemplated by their authors to be added to a GOP committee-approved bill that already contained a $208.5 million funding cut from the prior-year level, a legislative reimposition of the Global Gag Rule, and a prohibition on a U.S. contributions to UNFPA.

Only time will tell if the incoming 115th Congress and the new administration can end the political and procedural obstacles to more efficiently and expeditiously appropriating monies to fund the federal government. However, one can only guess that pragmatic appropriators will continue to be called upon to defuse the crisis that perpetually looms at the end of each fiscal year or as CRs are about to expire and the government faces the prospect of not having the funds to keep the lights on.

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