The Curious Concept Of “Clean” Continuing Resolutions

Many states have constitutional provisions that require any bill to be limited to a single subject.  The provisions are motivated by “good government” notions — if legislation can only address one subject, legislators and the public will be better informed about the contents of bills, there will be no opportunity to slip hidden, extraneous provisions into bills, and there will be less vote-trading and log-rolling.

Contrast the “single-subject” concept with Congress’ increasing use of a “continuing resolution” — that is, a single bill that funds the entire federal government, from stem to stern, from Department of Defense to the National Park Service to the Houses of Congress, through one up-or-down vote.  With the federal government facing another debt ceiling and funding crisis, President Obama and others are talking about a “clean” continuing resolution, but in reality there’s not much that is “clean” about continuing resolutions.

As we all remember from high school civics and Schoolhouse Rock, Congress is supposed to hold hearings and committee meetings, draft specific appropriations bills for the different departments of the federal government, and send them to the President for his signature or veto.  Such a process allows for the kind of careful, thoughtful evaluation of programs that the Constitution envisions.  But careful, thoughtful evaluation is hard work, and tough votes can upset potential campaign contributors.  That’s why, in recent decades, Congress and the President have resorted more and more to continuing resolutions — to the point where omnibus continuing resolutions have become the primary mechanism of federal spending.

It’s a lazy, terrible way to run a government.  Continuing resolutions are an avoidance mechanism and the ultimate form of log-rolling.  Congress and the President get to shirk the hard work of examining individual departments and being held accountable for votes on whether a particular agency deserves more or less money or whether a specific program should be continued or ended.  Instead, they get to shrug and talk about simply casting one vote to fund the entire federal government.  Pet programs get rolled in with essential government services, and the testimony of the heads of spy agencies is cited to justify a vote that also funds every boondoggle, benefits program, and construction project.

People wring their hands about waste, fraud, and abuse in the individual programs of the federal government.  Continuing resolutions ensure that we’ll never meaningfully address that topic.  So don’t talk to me about “clean” continuing resolutions.  It’s an inherently dirty device.

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