All agencies must have appropriated funds by the start of the fiscal year (October 1) to operate. Operations take money, so if there is no money authorized there is no basis for operations. Although there are a few circumstances that would allow an agency to operate past October 1 without an appropriation for the year (such as multi year funds having been left over from the preceding year), by and large all agencies go out of business (shut down or close down) on October 1 if there is no new appropriations act by this date. (For additional material on shutdowns, see the SHUTDOWN page)
Congress, however, seldom completes its appropriations work before October 1. Issues hold up work. There are more pressing matters, disagreements with the President, and disagreements between the House and Senate. Elections come every two years. The way to keep the government from shutting down without an appropriations act is by passing a "continuing resolution," (CR) or stop-gap appropriations measure. If all players (the House, the Senate, and the President) are agreed that a CR is in order, it can be quickly passed and the government stays open. (A CR is an appropriations act, so it has to undergo the same approvals as all other laws.) The CR generally provides funds for a short time, and avoids all issues that may have caused the delay in the regular appropriations act.
Advantages of the CR are that it keeps the government from shutting down, and provides a level of service that, for most citizens, may not be noticeably different from normal service. Another advantage is that it keeps key decision makers (members of Congress, the President, and the President's key aides) from having to make decisions that they may not want to make. In short, the CR buys time with little pain.
Agency and Operating Component Actions
Disadvantages are felt within the agency. Most CRs are fairly restrictive in what funds they provide, and what work may be carried out. CRs restrict program implementation, and present operating component managers with the need to delay work and replan and reprogram repeatedly. Plans cannot be implemented and opportunities are lost. CRs also present budget and administrative staffs with additional workloads, and reduce the efficiency of work processes. CRs force work into a nine to ten month work year, wasting two to three months of the year in what is essentially "wheel spinning" in the affected agencies.
CRs usually are passed in late September or the first days of October, and may be repeated as needed. They are associated with attempts to facilitate the continuation of government operations, and are generally not controversial, so can be considered mostly routine matters that will happen as needed.
Documents and Links
CRs are legislation, and their text is usually simple. There is nothing remarkable in what they state. Links are those related to legislation. CRs are usually stop-gap measures, acted upon in haste, so there is little to refer to.