Want to avoid government shutdowns? Then stop secret ‘continuing resolutions’ that cheat taxpayers

To avoid a federal government shutdown, Congress must pass an obscure but incredibly important piece of spending legislation by Friday called a continuing resolution – commonly referred to as a CR at the Capitol. At this point, no one knows if Congress will be able to do this in time to keep our government operating.

Want to know what the CR says about how your tax dollars will be spent? Unfortunately, even if Congress passes the bill this week, you won’t know until the last minute what’s in it. That’s because the whole CR process is cloaked in secrecy and mystery.

At a time when gridlock, dysfunction and bitter partisanship are running rampant in Congress, the CR has become a substitute for a federal budget – determining how the government spends the money it collects in taxes from the American people.

The ruling class no longer pretends that these CRs merely continue, unchanged, the funding for individual agencies or items about which the Congress occasionally has failed to agree. In fact, for a decade the entire government’s funding has depended on the content of the next CR.

Each CR is the product of intense bargaining behind closed doors among congressional leaders, the White House, lobbyists and other interested parties.

Putting everything into one spending package that few have read, to be voted on at the last minute – or else – has freed members of the House and Senate, along with the president, from their constitutional responsibilities to vote on or veto individual spending items.

The end result – the choice between voting for the CR or shutting down the government – has left the rest of us powerless to hold anyone responsible. This is not the way our government is supposed to work.

The most recent CR was passed in Congress Dec. 21 and expires Friday – creating the threat of a federal government shutdown if lawmakers fail to pass another CR this week.

The media reported that it was decided to slip all sorts of spending for all sorts of programs into the last CR. By whom? Who decided what? We simply don't know. Instead of giving us transparency in government, the whole CR process gives us government secrecy until the last possible moment. 

It’s time to stop relying on the temporary stopgap device of the continuing resolution to keep our government operating.

Regardless of what Congress decides concerning immmigration, ObamaCare, national security or anything else our government spends money on, the paramount issue sould be the ability of "we the people" to hold our rulers responsible. We can't do that under the current CR process.

Government by CR flows from the desire by legislators and presidents to evade responsibility for doing things that they know the voters will resent – combined with their desire to please the special interests of the corporate-administrative state complex that constitutes the ruling class.

This way of governing is, above all, a shift in the locus of sovereign responsibility. It takes power away from the voters in general, and gives more power to the ruling class and the army of well-paid lobbyists who seek funding for a broad array of programs for special interests.

For about 200 years – under the Constitution’s Article I, Section 9 requirement that the government may only spend money “appropriated by law” – Congress voted on federal budgets.

Back then, the House and Senate held hearings and public mark-up sessions, in which legislation was debated, amended and rewritten. Every major thing government did was voted on by our elected representatives in committees and then by both the House and Senate.

The media could cover as much of this as they wished and inform the American public about how their elected representatives were spending taxpayer dollars.

These public votes forced legislators and presidents to go on record supporting or opposing each spending bill, and enabled “we the people” to hold them accountable.

But now when anyone complains that the CR contains this or does not contain that – or that it spends too much money or not enough – all our elected members of Congress have the same plausible excuse: “I share your concerns. But I and other people of good will had to compromise to keep the government operating.”

Who supported what and opposed what? Nowadays, “we the people” can never know, and must base our suspicions on leaks and partisan sentiment.

But the insiders know perfectly well who is responsible for getting each provision into the CR while keeping others out; for crafting the language; and for how many dollars every word portends to whom.

The officials of government agencies and corporations, the regulators and regulated, and the profitable government-dependent nonprofits, can count the wins and losses. Now they own the game.

CRs were instituted by the Senate’s Democratic majority’s between 2007 and 2015 to move spending bills, and were continued thereafter with the Republican majority’s excuse that it takes 60 votes to pass anything in the Senate.

In fact, no such rule exists. Sixty is the number of votes required to cut off debate. But unlimited debate has not prevented – and cannot prevent – public consideration and votes on spending bills and other controversial matters.

Democrats and Republicans are happy with the current arrangement because it allows them to bargain over important matters for inclusion, exclusion, or modification in the next CR – entirely in private, responsible only to the ruling class.

As practiced for two centuries, the Constitution made every elected federal official responsible to the people for every item of government action. Europe’s parliamentary systems merely rested responsibility on the party in power for all that the government did.

Under the new way of governing in Washington, however, no individuals can be held responsible for anything. Since both parties must concur on CRs, neither can parties be held responsible. The ruling class likes it that way. The rest of us don’t.

It’s long past time to return to the standard budgeting process that served our nation so well through most of our history. It’s time to stop relying on the temporary stopgap device of the continuing resolution to keep our government operating.

Angelo M. Codevilla is a professor emeritus of international relations at Boston University.