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20 Years Of Congress’s Budget Procrastination, In One Chart

Every year, Congress faces an Oct. 1 deadline to pass a spending package that will pay for our government through the following fiscal year. And every year since 1998, Congress has blown straight past that deadline. The government is prohibited from operating without funding, so lawmakers rely on stopgap legislation, called “continuing resolutions,” to temporarily approve funding and avoid a shutdown while they negotiate a longer-term deal. But those resolutions don’t buy Congress a lot of time, sometimes as little as one day. The result — to use the go-to cliché for government funding — is that Congress repeatedly kicks the can down the road.

If the two-year, bipartisan spending deal that the Senate announced Wednesday is any indicator, legislators appear to have had enough of the recurring budget drama. House members will vote on the bill just ahead of a looming Thursday deadline, which was set when the most recent continuing resolution was signed into effect, ending last month’s three-day shutdown.

This is an old dance for legislators — there have been an average of 4.6 continuing resolutions per fiscal year since 1977. But keeping the government open for a few weeks at a time has its costs. A new study by the Government Accountability Office describes how these temporary deals create inefficiencies in contracting, hiring and clinical research. And when the government does shut down, the productivity losses can add up. The Bureau of Economic analysis estimated that the growth of the country’s gross domestic product was slowed by 0.3 percentage points in the fourth quarter of 2013 as a result of that year’s shutdown. Setting spending levels for the next two years might open up space for more compromise on next year’s appropriations bills because a breakdown in negotiations won’t result in a government shutdown. Or the longer-term bill might just free lawmakers from the pressure of being in Washington next October — right before the midterm elections.

Gus Wezerek was a visual journalist for FiveThirtyEight.