It’s become an annual ritual:  Congress can’t agree on a budget, so it adopts a “continuing resolution” to keep the government funded. Here’s a guide to this mammoth spending bill.


Q: What is it?

A: It’s legislation to keep the government running. Congress is supposed to adopt a budget by agreeing to a broad outline in the spring, then adopting spending bills, each dealing with a different subject. The work is supposed to be done by Oct. 1. For decades, Congress has failed to meet that deadline. So it agrees to continue funding for the government in a “continuing resolution.”


Q: How long does it keep the government funded?

A: It can provide money for a day, a week or for the rest of the year.


Q: Why don’t officials like continuing resolutions?

A: Individual spending bills come from subcommittees and committees where lawmakers hear testimony and are familiar with the agencies. They know where money can be best spent and saved. A continuing resolution is usually a general approach, and its temporary nature makes it hard for agencies to plan.


Q: What if neither the spending bills nor the stopgap measure passes before funding runs out?

A: Much of the government shuts down. This year, that will occur if a new stopgap measure is not adopted by March 27.


Q: Are any government functions excepted?

A: Yes, government activities that involve “the safety of human life or the protection of property,” such as national security, continue. In addition, entitlement benefits, such as Social Security and much of Medicare, are not included, nor is interest on the debt.


Q: Why is Congress considering a continuing resolution now?

A: Because last year, it could not agree on spending. Rather than engage in a pre-election slugfest, it agreed in September to put off the debate until after the election and adopted a stopgap measure to fund the government through March 27 at fiscal 2012 levels, though many programs could get a 0.612 percent increase.


Q: What will the new bill do?

A: Specifics remain unclear. The House passed its bill Wednesday, the Senate plans to act next week, and then a negotiating committee will try to iron out a deal. The final agreement is likely to set spending levels at $984 billion for the rest of this year and continue funding most agencies at last year’s levels, minus the automatic spending cuts that took effect March 1.


Q: Will the sequester continue?

A: Yes, but it could be tweaked. The Republican-led House wants to make changes in military and veterans funding, while Democrats are talking about doing the same for more domestic programs.


Q: Is another stopgap measure likely for the fiscal year that begins in October?

A: The House and Senate are expected to adopt their own versions of budget outlines by April 15, but chances they will agree on one plan don’t seem good. Then they have to settle on the dozen spending bills by Oct. 1. That rarely happens.

McClatchy News Service