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The specter of government shutdowns is becoming a regular part of congressional life, data shows

Legislative measures to avoid shutdowns now typically span more than half the year.
Image: The sun rises over the Capitol on Dec. 28, 2020.
The sun rises over the Capitol in 2020. The government had measures in place to avoid a shutdown 1 out of 4 days that year.Tasos Katopodis / Getty Images file

Welcome to The Data Point, a series from the NBC News Data Graphics team that explains a slice of the latest news through charts and visuals.

Congress on Thursday avoided a shutdown once again through a stopgap legislative measure called a continuing resolution, a method lawmakers turn to when they’re unable to pass regular spending bills, and a method used for longer periods of time in recent years.

Every year, Congress is supposed to pass a series of appropriation bills before Oct. 1 to fund the government. If it does not, then the government shuts down. When Congress can’t come to an agreement on appropriation bills, it often turns to continuing resolutions as a stopgap measure until it can reach a deal on the regular process.

According to an NBC News analysis of more than two decades of government funding bills, continuing resolutions are being used less often but are lasting longer. Data from the Congressional Research Service shows that in the past decade, continuing resolutions have been used to cover an average of more than half the year. Before the 2011 government fiscal year, these measures spanned about a third of the year. 

While their duration has increased, the frequency of these resolutions have decreased slightly. Prior to 2011, there were an average of six continuing resolutions a year, and in the past decade that average has decreased to about four.

In the past two-plus decades, there have been more than 100 continuing resolutions funding government agencies — or some of them — for as long as a year, or as little as a day.

There were five continuing resolutions in the 2021 fiscal year that began October 2020 and ended in September this year, which was the most used in a year since 2011, when eight  stopgap measures were passed. In the early years of the 2000s, many more continuing resolutions were enacted, but for short periods. In the first months of the 2001 fiscal year, then-President Bill Clinton signed 21 continuing resolutions, many of them lasting only a day.