Congressional Budget Problems Create ‘Uncertainty and Disruptions’

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Members of Congress often talk about the need to improve government efficiency, but recent testimony from an official with the Government Accountability Office (GAO) is a reminder that lawmakers could help by simply getting their budget work done in a timely manner.

The testimony, based on years of GAO studies, discusses the challenges that federal agencies face as the result of budget uncertainties and disruptions in their funding. These can make effective planning and efficiencies more difficult for agency leaders to achieve.

Continuing resolutions — the stop-gap funding measures such as the one that Congress approved earlier this month — provide a good example.

These resolutions generally call for funding to continue at previous levels, regardless of changing needs and priorities, for weeks or months into a new fiscal year. (The current continuing resolution expires Dec. 12.)

“In all but 4 of the last 40 years, Congress has passed continuing resolutions (CR) to enable agencies to continue operating if all regular appropriations bills have not been enacted on time,” said Heather Krause, director of strategic studies at GAO.

The GAO has found that this not only forces some agencies to delay contracts, hiring and other spending, it can continue to cause challenges to federal managers even after Congress finally approves full-year appropriations.

“Agency officials reported taking varied actions to manage inefficiencies resulting from CRs, including shifting contract and grant cycles to later in the fiscal year to avoid repetitive work,” Krause said in a prepared statement.

In addition to continuing resolutions, the GAO identified two other “key sources of budget uncertainty and disruption”: sequestration and lapses in appropriations, which can trigger partial government shutdowns.

In addition to creating unnecessary uncertainties and potential inefficiencies, Congress has also placed rules and restrictions on federal agencies that can make it difficult for them to make necessary adjustments throughout the year.

As the result of two particular laws, the GAO says, agencies must “walk a fine line throughout the fiscal year, avoiding both over-obligating and under-obligating funds.”

It isn’t hard to see how all of this can create fertile ground for waste, duplication, costly delays, more expensive contracts and rushed spending decisions.

Nor is it hard to see what the optimal solution would be: Congress should strive to approve the 12 required appropriations bills in a timely manner — well before the Oct. 1 start of each fiscal year — and ensure that they are adequately funded.

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