A view of the U.S. Capitol Building with traffic in the foreground, in Washington, D.C. Sipa USA/Graeme Sloan

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Spending bills are taking longer to enact in Congress


Photo Credit: Sipa USA/Graeme Sloan


The US Congress and president are taking increasingly longer to enact federal spending laws each year, leaving fiscal priorities in limbo for much of the year. The lengthening delays disrupt government operations and hinder their ability to plan, reallocate resources, and fulfill government agency missions. In the current fiscal year, which began October 1, political infighting has led to threats of debt ceiling breaches and government shutdowns. Some in Congress want to enact separate appropriations bills rather than a single omnibus spending measure, but agreement on so many major appropriations seems like a distant prospect.

The budget process begins in January or February, when the president submits a budget based on the recommendations of the White House Office of Management and Budget.[1] Congress adopts an overall budget resolution laying out a spending roadmap, but actual spending has to be enacted through passage of different appropriations bills or an overall omnibus measure. It rarely happens that these spending measures are adopted before October 1, so stopgap measures have to be adopted to keep the government functioning. In fact, Congress has enacted all appropriations bills on time only 3 out of the last 44 years, and is usually several months late. The last time the October 1 deadline was met was in 1997. To keep the government operating, Congress often resorts to continuing resolutions, typically keeping the government on short-term “autopilot,” maintaining funding levels at the previous year’s levels until legislation covering the remainder of the fiscal year is enacted.

Continuing resolutions keep the government running, but they do not allow for new programs to be started or for changes in tax policy, and there are other disadvantages. A recent report from the Government Accountability Office stated that continuing resolutions have led to delayed contracts and grants, delays in hiring, and additional administrative work. On the other hand, the omnibus approach enables Congress to establish policy across broad categories and engage in vital tradeoffs among interest groups affecting diverse areas, facilitating dealmaking and ultimate approval.

Over the past 20 years, budget-making has taken longer and longer. In the graph below, the horizontal axis shows the fiscal year and the vertical axis shows the five-year moving average of the time elapsed between the end of the fiscal year of September and the passing of the annual major appropriations bill, starting with the 1999 budget.[2] A line of best fit is added.

The average time it has taken to pass a budget has moved from 80 days past the deadline two decades ago to around 140 days today: Major appropriations used to be passed on average in mid-December but are now passed in mid to late February. For example, the 1998–99 omnibus bill passed a mere 21 days after the deadline, but the 2021–22 bill took 166 days.

This year is following true to form. Just before Thanksgiving, the new speaker of the House, Mike Johnson, advanced a two-tiered continuing resolution to temporarily fund some parts of the government through January 19 and other parts through February 2. Approval was adopted as Democrats and Republicans came together to avoid a government shutdown before the Thanksgiving holiday, but many House Republicans objected, saying they wanted to enact deep spending cuts in domestic programs through the appropriations process. Congress should ideally strive to do better, but the current political environment makes that difficult.


1. The recommendation is occasionally somewhat delayed, especially if a new administration is taking office or the previous year’s budget is delayed.

2 . Not all appropriations are contained within the spending bills shown. Data displayed here come from the General Services Administration and fall under its definition of an enacted federal budget.

Data Disclosure

The data underlying this analysis are available here.

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