Why is it so damn hard to fund the government?

It is five months and three continuing resolutions (CRs) into Fiscal Year 2022, and bipartisan bicameral negotiations have just begun on an Omnibus package to fund the entirety of the federal government’s discretionary programs. While this year’s delay is particularly long, relying on CRs of varying duration to buy time to negotiate and enact a trillion-dollar, thousand-page funding package, has become an annual tradition. The idea of enacting appropriations on time by October 1st is a punch line.

Seemingly endless delays, CRs, and excuses postpone important funding increases, policy changes, and requirements for federal departments and agencies. It makes it difficult for organizations receiving federal funding to budget internally, and contributes to massive economic uncertainty.

At CRD Associates, our clients frequently ask some version of the question, “Why is it so damn hard to fund the federal government?”

The answer is complicated, and the policy and political dynamics vary year-to-year. But let’s examine some of this year’s complicating factors:


  • Without a statutory limit on discretionary spending, an agreement was required on total funding, the split between defense and nondefense, and suballocations for each of the 12 subcommittees.
  • Republicans also wanted a threshold agreement regarding policy riders to which they object, and Democrats’ removal of longstanding riders and restrictions like the Hyde Amendment prohibiting federal funding for abortion.
  • With both chambers allowing earmarks at some level, negotiators must agree on the total number and dollar figure of earmarks allowed, accounts eligible for earmarking in each bill, and the split between the parties. This is complicated by the fact that almost all Democrats requested earmarks, but only about one-third of Republicans did, so an even split would result in a few Republicans reaping massive funding amounts.
  • With a framework established, twelve concurrent negotiations commence. Subcommittee chairs and ranking members determine account levels for hundreds or thousands of line items, policy changes, funding restrictions, report language, and anything else under their umbrella. Some items are kicked up to the full committee level for horse-trading across subcommittees, or left for leadership to resolve.

Counting the votes

The most skillful negotiating and drafting in the world will be for naught if the votes aren’t there. In the House, Democrats never brought their defense bill to the floor because the funding level was too high for progressives and too low for Republicans, so leadership would not have been able to muster 218 votes to pass it. With the defense level expected to rise above the House bill to match the National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA), Democrats will be even more in need of Republican votes. In the Senate where 60 votes are needed to invoke cloture, negotiators will need to balance funding levels, riders, earmarks, and possibly attach other unrelated legislation (“ash and trash”) to build a supermajority.

Political incentives

Without a huge Congressional majority, votes from the minority are necessary to enact appropriations law. Yet it is very easy for a minority party to simply vote no unless all their demands are met. Some Republicans have believe a full-year CR at the level President Trump signed into law in December 2020 is politically preferable to a new deal, even if it rules out their desired increases in defense funding and any parochial wins they could get in an Omnibus.

Put these factors together, and it becomes clear why just keeping the lights on is more difficult than it sounds.At CRD Associates, we will be following negotiations closely and taking advantage of every opportunity to influence the contents of an Omnibus.It is important for advocates to take advantage of every opportunity now; despite the massive amount of uncertainty described above, this will not be any easier in an election year.

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