A continuing resolution (CR) is a short-term appropriations bill that serves as a stop-gap to prevent a full or partial government shutdown. CRs extend all federal government discretionary spending not already approved by regular appropriations bills (and signed into law) by the beginning of the next federal fiscal year (October 1).
The CR in the Hat
CRs do not typically appropriate specific amounts for the operation of government programs. Instead, they most often provide program funding at the prior year's level. If funding negotiations remain at a standstill while the federal government operates under a CR (ranging from a few days to a year in length), subsequent CRs can be passed to continue funding until a compromise is reached, often with the passage of an omnibus appropriations bill.
Two Become One
Another wrinkle is that some CRs in recent years have also been the legislative vehicle for final versions of one of the 12 regular appropriations bills. For example, the defense appropriations bill was included in a CR in 2011. What this means is that some appropriations in that type of legislation would be final (in the case of the 2011 CR, defense spending), while programs not yet finalized would still operate under a stop-gap to continue funding until Congress makes a final determination. A new moniker for this type of hybrid appropriation is "CRomnibus."
One Fish, Two Fish, Red Fish, Blue Fish
Since 1977, there have only been four instances where a CR was not needed to keep the government operating. In theory, CRs are a simple extension of current funding into the next federal fiscal year. But even though House and Senate rules restrict inclusion of legislative language in regular appropriations bills, that restriction does not apply to CRs in the House, and the Senate has considerable leeway that can lead to the inclusion of legislative language. As a result of this and when combined with the fact that CRs are considered "must-pass" legislation, Congress can use CRs to amend or create new provisions of law and even to initiate new spending, sometimes at the request of the President. Importantly, policy riders governing specific spending provisions in a CR are subject to the CR's expiration date.
Horton Hatches a CR
Due to the continued breakdown in regular order in the appropriations process this year, including disagreements over Obamacare and the display of the Confederate flag at federal grave sites, even Speaker Boehner has admitted that Congress will need to pass a CR to avert a government shutdown at the end of this month. Not a single appropriations bill has made it to the President's desk so far in 2015. Complicating the process, conservatives in the Republican caucus are threatening to vote against any CR that includes funding for Planned Parenthood. Congress will only have 10 legislative days in September to draft a compromise CR that the President would be willing to sign.