Clouds are seen in the U.S. Capitol reflecting pool at daybreak in Washington on Day Three of the government shutdown, on Monday. (J. David Ake/AP)

The last time the government was fully funded before the fiscal year started was in the 1997 fiscal year, which began Oct. 1, 1996. Since then, every October has begun with the government paying its bills under the authority of a “continuing resolution” — a congressional resolution that continues funding at the last-approved levels. Every October, that is, except October 2013, during the first half of which the government was shut down due to a lack of funding.

With another shutdown in the books, running a touch under three days over the weekend, we thought we would look at just how funding for the government had gone in recent years. Using data from a number of sources (including Congressional Research Service analysis and Congress.gov) we determined the state of funding for each day since the 1997 fiscal year began.

Explanation to follow, but, here it is:


The way the process works in theory is a number of appropriations bills funding different parts of the government are passed by Congress and signed into law. (Different parts of the government meaning different executive branch departments, like Department of Homeland Security, or Agriculture, as well as things like the military and Congress itself.) That is the way it worked before the 1997 fiscal year and the way it has worked a few times since then. Often, Congress will get all of those funding streams approved in one fell swoop, passing what is often referred to as “omnibus” legislation.

Those bills generally include changes to the funding levels for different departments for the coming fiscal year. A continuing resolution does not. CRs (as they are called) simply keep funding at current levels and generally serve as stopgaps.

That is why most Octobers are paid for by CRs: Congress is still figuring out what funding will look like for the year.

Sometimes they do not, and the entire fiscal year is paid for under a CR. (See 2007, 2011 and 2013.) Sometimes they do not, and the government is not funded at all, like when the 2014 fiscal year started in October 2013 without any money to pay the bills — and like when a continuing resolution expired on Jan. 19 this year.

We have added vertical lines to make it easier to follow the years, but they also serve another function. The years to the left of each vertical line are election years, presidential or midterm. The pattern of late has been that the government is funded earlier in election years than in off-years — probably because members of Congress would rather not have to leave the campaign trail to head back to Washington and fight over funding.

What is masked here is the frequency of continuing resolutions. At the beginning of fiscal year 2012, for example, continuing resolutions were passed on Sept. 30, Oct. 5, Nov. 18, Dec. 16 and Dec. 17 before funding was finalized on Dec. 23. That is why the end of each calendar year (and beginning of each fiscal one) can often seem so dramatic — Congress ricochets from funding fight to funding fight day after day after day.

Note the fight for fiscal year 2018 is not yet over. We are operating under a continuing resolution until Feb. 8, at which point the government could very well shut down again. (The last time the government shut down twice in a year was in the 1996 fiscal year.) In other words, we are, yet again, in the middle of one of those CR back-and-forth periods. We are also in an election year — so expect it to wrap up sooner rather than later.

After all, funding the government is important — but not as important as reelection.