President Donald Trump has agreed with Democratic Congressional leaders to extend a continuing budget resolution for three months. I can hear the federally-funded program managers:
It’s better than a government shutdown, but not much.
Once upon a time, Congress passed budgets in March. That allowed agencies like the Department of Energy to work through any changes that Congress made in their requested budgets and to inform the various facilities and contractors what their budgets would be for the fiscal year starting in October. Yes, it really worked that way in the dim past.
Even that regularity had its difficulties, including some fiddling with budgets at levels from the DOE down and the problem of being sure of only one year’s funding at a time. But in the mid-nineties, Newt Gingrich got the bright idea of holding the government hostage by budget in order to enact measures wanted by a minority.
I managed programs at Los Alamos through the eighties and into the nineties. There always were ups and downs, but continuing resolutions introduced a wnole new level of chaos.
A continuing resolution is Congress’s way to kick the budget can down the road. If a budget is not agreed by September, they have to do something to allow the government to continue operations after October 1. A continuing resolution says “You may spend as much money as your budget had last year.” This has a number of problems.
One of the projects I managed was cleanup of contaminated sites at Los Alamos. This is an oversimplified look at how a continuing resolution might affect a cleanup.
- Year 1: Evaluation of data, take samples, do analysis of samples to define cleanup.
- Year 2: Do cleanup.
- Year 3: Take samples, evaluate cleanup, write report.
The budget for Year 1 is mostly for people, and in-house services, relatively small. The budget for Year 2 is much larger and mostly for contracts to companies that use earthmoving equipment. The budget for Year 3 looks a lot like that of Year 1.
Under a continuing resolution, there will not be enough money for Year 2. Congress has been micromanaging in more and more detail over the years, so project money is specified for people or equipment or contracts. Even though there may be plenty of funding under a continuing resolution for Year 3, it will be in the wrong pocket.
The managers at DOE and the national laboratories have some ability to shift money among projects and pockets, but the level of shifting necessary may well be against the law. To my knowledge, nobody has been prosecuted for that kind of manipulation, but it makes people feel bad about their jobs.
And that’s not the whole story. As the year proceeds on a continuing resolution, money is spent. But the budget Congress eventually decides on may be different. There may be less funding for people. If you’ve paid six people for six months and your budget is cut to three people, all your people money is gone by the time you know what the budget is. Again, managers can shift things so that people who will be needed the next year don’t have to be fired, again unsatisfactory and possibly illegal.
Every project across the government faces this uproar under a continuing resolution. The National Institutes of Health, the Centers for Disease Control, FEMA, the border protection services, and, yes, the Department of Defense’s many operations. John McCain recognized this in a speech today.
I haven’t mentioned all the time that is wasted on rejiggering budgets, notifying people of changes, and all the other unnecessary work that goes into dealing with Congress’s budget antics. My guess is that it runs into billions of dollars.
Newt Gingrich found a way to hobble government and advance his political goals. Now the Democrats find political leverage in cutting down the continuing resolution to three months. If we want the government to work, this has to stop.
Cross-posted at Nuclear Diner