Every fiscal year, the Congressional Budget Act of 1974 requires the House and Senate to enact 12 separate discretionary spending bills, one for each appropriations subcommittee (Agriculture, Defense, Homeland Security, and so on). They have failed to meet this minimum requirement since 1994.
When Republicans re-took the Senate in November 2014, thus ensuring GOP control over both houses of Congress, they vowed to change all that. “One of my challenges is to try to convince some of my members that passing an appropriations bill is a good thing, not a bad thing,” incoming Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) told The New York Times. “The Senate basically didn’t do squat for years.”
Yet squat is still the order of the day. While the unified Congress did manage for the first time in six years to pass a budget resolution—the also-required, nonbinding baseline blueprint from which the appropriations bills are supposed to be carved—the appropriations process once again devolved into an ungainly, unreadable, last-minute mess of legislation called the omnibus. Clocking in at $1.1 trillion for Fiscal Year 2016, and stuffed with bills that even the relevant committee chairs had no idea were going in (see “The Last Honest Man in Congress,” page 32), the best thing that can be said about the omnibus was that at least it wasn’t another continuing resolution.
Continuing resolutions (or C.R.s, as they are known in D.C.), keep the federal government funded for short stints while politicians continue arguing about the appropriations bills they refuse to pass. In practice, they increase the frequency of can’t-miss deadlines—and, during periods when Congress is divided, round-the-clock headlines—after which money for all “nonessential” purposes runs out.