The Coast Guard research icebreaker Healy is shown in thin ice in the Arctic Circle in July 2000. A continuing resolution would hamper the Coast Guard’s plans to overhaul its tiny icebreaker fleet. (Coast Guard)
A tentative deal for a six-month continuing resolution would, if approved, avert the threat of a government shutdown until March — but it also would set back plans for new and expanded programs.
Among the planned initiatives that would be delayed:
More tax collectors at the Internal Revenue Service.
A new polar icebreaker for the Coast Guard.
Additional contracted space to relieve overcrowding in federal prisons.
An innovative partnership between the State and Defense departments to deal with unexpected threats.
CRs consign agencies to an all-too-familiar budget limbo. Under a CR, new programs are generally taboo; hiring and procurement are restricted; and agencies may even be stuck with funding programs at levels they think are unnecessarily high.
“It’s inefficient,” said Todd Harrison, senior fellow at the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments, a defense policy think tank. While Congress routinely relies on continuing resolutions to buy time for passage of full-year appropriations legislation, a six-month CR is unusual. And because lawmakers typically operate from “crisis to crisis,” Harrison said, it’s unlikely they will pass any of the dozen annual spending bills needed to fund government operations before March.
The IRS, for example, was a winner under the Obama administration’s 2013 budget request, which proposed adding more than $400 million for tax enforcement activities, mainly by hiring several thousand new agents and other staff, according to the request. That money brings a better than 4-to-1 return on investment, IRS Commissioner Douglas Shulman told a House Appropriations subcommittee in March, and comes as the estimated gap between taxes paid and taxes owed is several hundred billion dollars. Shulman could not be reached for comment last week on the impact of the proposed CR.
A potential loser is the Justice Department’s Bureau of Prisons. Under a House-passed spending bill, the bureau would get another $269 million to relieve inmate overcrowding, in part by providing more money to use contract beds and begin opening two new prisons. And the Coast Guard, which now has just one functioning heavy icebreaker, is seeking $8 million to begin design of a second. Neither of those initiatives is likely to gain traction under a continuing resolution, which generally limits spending to the previous year’s levels.
Even initiatives already approved by Congress may struggle for money. Last year, lawmakers authorized spending up to $250 million on the Global Security Contingency Fund, a joint effort between State and DoD to deal with emerging and urgent threats.
“Rather than two departments fighting over resources, this fund makes us work and contribute together,” Andrew Shapiro, assistant secretary of state for political-military affairs, said in an Aug. 8 speech. The Senate Appropriations Committee had already agreed to plug $25 million into the new program. Under a six-month CR, however, the only opportunity for funding would be if Congress agreed to reprogram money from another account.
Even if CRs are now the rule, the impact seeps into almost every corner of government business. For Food and Drug Administration regulators, the need to defer hiring and training has affected their ability to carry out food and medical device inspections, the Government Accountability Office found in a 2009 report examining the impact of CRs on government programs.
At the Veterans Affairs Department, which faces a chronic backlog of disability benefit claims, the lack of spending slowed its ability to bring new claims processors up to speed, the report said.
The effect of CRs on contracting is especially pronounced, GAO found. Agencies often limit the lifespan of a contract to the duration of a particular CR, meaning that those contracts sometimes have to be repeatedly renewed. The Veterans Health Administration estimated that a one-month CR resulted in more than $1 million in lost productivity at VA medical facilities and more than $140,000 in added costs for its central contracting office.
For rank-and-file federal employees, the resulting uncertainty can be profoundly vexing.
“The budgetary process is broken,” one agency accountant vented late last month. She suggested slapping unspecified penalties on lawmakers for failing to pass yearly spending bills on time. Members of Congress “need to realize that the best thing is to help us do our jobs,” she said to a round of applause during a question-and-answer session at an Association of Government Accountants conference. She asked that her name and agency not be mentioned.
Congressional leaders announced the tentative agreement for a six-month CR on July 31, a few days before lawmakers left Washington for a monthlong break. Staffers are now drafting the legislation, which will likely be taken up as soon as Congress returns to work after Labor Day.
For agencies, the deal offers two small advantages: The six-month duration provides some planning stability while it sets a discretionary overall spending cap of $1.047 trillion, slightly higher than this year’s threshold. Lawmakers also have some leeway in tweaking spending levels for individual agencies, meaning that some could see small increases or decreases.
Either way, the final figures will be close to this year’s levels, said Richard Kogan, a former House Budget Committee staffer now at the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, a liberal-leaning think tank.