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Automatic CRs treat the symptom, not the disease

To:             The Select Committee on the Modernization of Congress

From:       Sarah Binder, Brookings Institution and George Washington University

Reform:   Automatic CRs treat the symptom, not the disease

The most recent government shutdown fueled enthusiasm for preventing future shutdowns. A prominent proposal is the “automatic CR”: Should Congress and the president fail to enact into law one or more of the dozen required appropriations bills for the fiscal year that begins October 1st, a stopgap continuing resolution (“CR”) would automatically be enacted into law (1). By definition, automatic CRs would immediately achieve their aims by foreclosing the possibility of lapses in appropriations for the affected areas of government spending.

These proposals aim to prevent the economic, social, and political pain caused by extended government shutdowns. Still, these proposals strike me as misguided in the following ways:

First, automatic CRs treat the symptom, not the disease. By preventing lapses in funding from occurring, automatic CRs directly eliminate the immediate problem. But providing this sort of safety net for government funding fails to address the underlying problems that give rise to spending lapses in the first place. Creating an automated backstop leaves in place whatever set of political, electoral, or policy disputes that generated the spending stalemate.

Second, automatic CRs could make future stalemate over spending more, not less, likely. Granted, given Congress’s poor track record in enacting any of the spending bills on time over the past two decades, one might argue that automatic CRs can’t make things worse. But automatic CRs eliminate the one penalty that can force compromise over appropriations bills: the threat that one party might shoulder most of the blame for a government shutdown.

Third, CRs lock in the previous year’s spending—building in a conservative bias. Unlike the threat of automatic spending cuts included in the Budget Control Act that by design affect and yoke together the fate of defense and domestic discretionary spending, automatic CRs only affect spending in those areas on which Congress has deadlocked. So long as the parties have a stronger shared incentive to finalize defense spending before the start of the fiscal year, domestic spending would be harder hit by automatic CRs than defense. And if the parties remain divided over domestic spending priorities, automatic CRs could decrease GOP incentives to compromise. That same dynamic could emerge across more or less popular areas of domestic spending, as automatic CRs would be less likely to kick in for less contentious spending bills. That would especially be true if Congress were to adopt a version of automatic CRs that imposes across-the-board cuts in affected agencies. In other words, automated cuts might not spur negotiations as their sponsors intend.

Fourth, putting Congress’s power of the purse on autopilot—especially if the automatic CRs become year-long CRs—handicaps Congress’s ability to respond to shifting agendas or emergencies that could require changes in spending priorities. Tying this year’s funding to last year’s priorities risks further diminishing agency planning and capacity.

Finally, if automatic CRs did achieve their purpose of spurring negotiations without first imposing the costs of a government shutdown, then their stopgap nature could benefit the congressional budget process. But given the infrequency of shutdowns and the discipline that the threat of shutdowns often– albeit not always—imposes, the downsides of automatic CRs would be considerable. Ultimately, automatic CRs risk even lower lowest-common-denominator legislating than is common on Capitol Hill.

(1) The bills and proposals vary by how long an automatic CR would last and whether they include automatic across-the-board spending cuts.

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Topics: Reform Efforts
Sarah Binder
Sarah Binder is senior fellow in Governance Studies at the Brookings Institution and professor of political science at George Washington University, w...