Originally broadcast on January 21, 2013
Michael Keegan: Welcome to a special edition of The Business of Government Hour, a conversation with authors. I’m Michael Keegan, your host and managing editor of The Business of Government Magazine.
For over a decade, the IBM Center for The Business of Government has sought to connect research to practice, sponsoring third party research on a broad range of public management issues facing us today.
In only four cases since 1975 has the US Congress passed all appropriation bills before the beginning of the fiscal year. In some years like 1996, inaction led to agencies suspending operations. This year Congress adopted a six month continuing resolution for all fiscal year 2013 appropriate bills, delaying the final decision until March 31st.
What do these delays means for how agencies manage their money and operations? How do funding delays affect grantees and contractors? What does all of this talk about the impending fiscal cliff really mean and just what is a continuing resolution and how can the federal budget process be improved?
Today we will explore all of these questions and so much more with Professor Phil Joyce, a budget expert at the University of Maryland and author of the recent IBM Center report “The Cost of Budget Uncertainty: Analyzing the Impacts of Late Appropriations.” This report examines the impact of late budgets over the past thirty-seven years and identifies useful coping strategies while offering recommendations on how to soften the adverse effects of budget uncertainty.
Welcome Professor Joyce. It’s great to have you.
Phil Joyce: Thanks. Thanks for having me.
Michael Keegan: Great. Before we delve into your recent IBM Center report, “The Cost of Budget Uncertainty: Analyzing the Impacts of Late Appropriations,” I would like to provide some context and explain certain realities that beset our period. First things first; would you elaborate on what is meant today by the coming fiscal cliff and what are the conditions that precipitated this situation?
Phil Joyce: Well, it’s a good question and of course it is a question that lots of people are asking right now in Washington. The fiscal cliff results from many factors and the thing that they all have in common is that they are all self-inflicted. There are really two big components of the fiscal cliff. First, the Bush tax cuts that were passed in 2001 and then 2003 were sunset in order to make them more affordable, but what that means is while they were kind of phased in a little at a time, they all go away at once and when a tax cut goes away, it means people are experiencing a big tax increase. So people are, right now, slated to experience a big tax increase as of the beginning of January.
The second is that when the so called super committee in 2011 failed to reach an agreement on a set of spending cuts and tax increases to cut $1.2 trillion from the budget deficit, there was a process put in place called sequestration which is a set of automatic spending cuts that are also scheduled to take effect at the same time.
So if you add those two things together plus a number of other sort of little things or smaller things, there is a total of about $5 trillion worth of tax increases and spending cuts over ten years that is scheduled to go into effect and that is what people described as the fiscal cliff.
Now, as I say, the fiscal cliff, if it is a cliff, and I sort of prefer to think of it as a slope more than a cliff because it’s not like a government shutdown or even a debt ceiling failure where kind of really bad things happen all at once. It’s more that over a long period of time, you’re going to have, you know, less spending and you’re going to have higher taxes. But the existence of the cliff is a failure of our politics. That is, it is the failure of our ability to kind of come together and put together a budget that is really sort of consistent with what a budget ought to be which is kind of trying to match up spending and revenue.
And so we built it, you know, kind of block by block or stone by stone. The problem is not really a disagreement, I think, about whether the deficit needs to be cut – which it does need to be cut – I think the basic problem is that if you just let the fiscal cliff kick in, then it is going to happen in a very sort of unreflected way. And so what people are looking for now is not trying to necessarily avoid having the deficit cut but to do it in a more sort of responsible and considered way and that, of course, is the difficulty because the reason we have this to begin with is because people haven’t been able to agree on, you know. One party says it doesn’t want to raise taxes. Another party says it doesn’t want to touch entitlements so the question is, given this looming deadline really, the fiscal cliff deadline, are they going to be able to get together and do something now.
Michael Keegan: So, Professor Joyce, you mentioned the budget and I would like you to provide us, as much as you can – I know we joked offline that you have a whole semester class dedicated to explaining the federal budget but could you give us, say, a thirty thousand foot overview of the US federal budget process?
Phil Joyce: Sure. You know, the budget process really starts for the federal government when the president submits a budget proposal which happens the first Monday in February. Now, the president’s proposal is what the president would do if he were king but of course the reason we have a president and a Congress is because we don’t like having a king and so the president’s proposal is really just that, a proposal. And the Congress then has to respond to the president’s proposal and the Congress actually does that at this point in two stages.
The first is the passage of what is called the budget resolution and the budget resolution is really where the Congress tries to set and overall framework for the budget and it really focuses very much on the big picture; total taxes, total spending, total surplus or deficits. The so-called Ryan Plan which people heard a lot about in the campaign because Paul Ryan, who is the chairman of the house budget committee was the vice presidential nominee, was really the house budget resolution. So the fact that there was a Ryan Plan at all was really a function of the fact that this is where at least the House of Representatives had laid out its plan for the budget.
And then what is supposed to happen is that if we have a budget resolution and the budget resolution has been put in place, then all of the committees in Congress that are – that are making decisions on taxes and spending, they are supposed to live within the constraints established by the budget resolution. And I think probably the most important one of those is the – it puts an overall constraint on the appropriations committees and so the total amount of money that the appropriations committees have to divide up is supposed to be established by the budget resolution.
Now the reason I say supposed to be is because if you ask how does the budget process work, then you would have to ask well, what is the difference between how it works on paper and how it works in reality? On paper you have this kind of nice clean process where the president submits a budget and then there is a budget resolution, then there are various pieces of legislation consistent with the budget resolution, and all of that happens by October first. In reality, we haven’t had a budget resolution in three years because the house and the Senate can’t agree on a budget resolution, mainly because the house has been controlled by the Republicans and the Senate has been controlled by the Democrats.
In that kind of a situation, it’s a little bit more of a free for all and you don’t really have an agreed upon overall constraint that the Congress is trying to live within. Moreover, the appropriations process which is all supposed to be done by October first, that has not happened except for four times in the last thirty-seven years and in fact – I know we’ll get to this later – but the reason that I chose to write this report is essentially because of the chronic dysfunction of the appropriations process. So it’s a little bit hard to think about the budget process without sort of thinking about this gap between the way it should work and the way it does.
Michael Keegan: So, Professor Joyce, what has led to the current dysfunction of the federal budget process and more importantly, has the apparent erosion of consensus among participants led to where we are today and will just reforming the process bring back or resuscitate that consensus?
Phil Joyce: It’s a very good question. I think that the answer to the first question really sort of logically flows into the answer to the second. It is such a political problem and so much not a procedural problem that I am one who is very skeptical about the ability of the process to do anything about it but let’s go back to why we have the dysfunction that we have.
I think the short answer is that political leaders – and I use the term advisedly – care more about gaining partisan advantage than they do about governing and they do about making sure that government operates well. I don’t mean this as a partisan statement necessarily; it’s just an example but some time – I don’t know when it was, 2009, 2010, minority leader Mitch McConnell in the Senate made the statement that the primary goal of the Republican Party was to make President Obama a one term president. That is not a recipe for governing. It’s not a recipe of achieving consensus and so if both parties are trying to kind of look and see how they can gain political advantage over the other one, it doesn’t encourage them to compromise.
Now, part of what I think is kind of symptomatic of this is that we don’t have many moderates left in either the House of Representatives or the Senate. There used to be not a majority but at least a sort of critical mass of people who were in the middle but they were very important because they helped things get done and so you could get a coalition of moderates of both parties to align with, you know, some Republicans on one side or some Democrats on the other side in order to get things done.
Increasingly, the parties are very polarized. Now, there are a number of reasons for that including redistricting which has led in part to this polarization because both parties have been trying to create a larger number of sort of safe districts for their members. So you have heavily Republican districts, heavily Democratic districts. But the fact is that, you know, that you just haven’t had a lot of people expressing moderate views.
There is some good news here which is that if you have been following some of the discussions on these fiscal cliff debates, there are some people on both sides and I think especially in the Senate as opposed to the house who has begun to express more moderate views on issues such as taxes and entitlements. You have some Republicans saying yes, under some circumstances they could imagine seeing taxes raised. You’ve had some Democrats who have said, yes, they do believe that entitlement programs, spending is growing too fast and that we need to do something about that. So that at least gives us some hope that things might be turning around at least at the margin. But still you have a number of people in both parties who have fairly extreme views and it’s very hard to sort of reconcile those together.
You know, the people who get probably the most press about this are the Tea Party Republicans who have, you know, many of them relatively extreme views on the right but there also are people who will take the position in the Democratic party that under no circumstance should we ever touch Medicare or social security as a part of an effort to reduce the deficit and the fact is that we have to do both of those things. It’s not a choice between raising taxes and cutting spending. It is raising taxes and cutting spending and the question is just which taxes and what spending.
Michael Keegan: Exactly. Well, this dysfunction which you have outlined does have consequences and it either leads to government shutdown or the increasing use of continuing resolutions or CRs. Could you tell us a little bit more about what continual resolution is and give us a little bit about the history?
Phil Joyce: Okay. A continual resolution is literally a short-term appropriation. It is an appropriation typically which covers a portion of a fiscal year and the reason it is called a continual resolution is because it is allowing agencies to continue to spend at the level that they already are spending. That is a kind of classic continuing resolution. So if you had an appropriation for fiscal year 2012 and you had a continuing resolution for fiscal year 2013, it would just say continue doing all of the stuff in fiscal year 2013 that you were doing in fiscal year 2012 but you can’t do anything new and you can’t stop doing anything that you were already doing. So that is a kind of classic continual resolution.
Now, the history here is a little bit interesting because continual resolutions have been around for a long time. I mean, the continual resolutions, I think, have been around, you know, for most of this century. But there was no particular consequence to failing to enact appropriation bills by the beginning of the fiscal year until 1980 when the attorney general at that time, Benjamin Civiletti who was President Carter’s last attorney general issued an opinion and that opinion essentially said federal agencies are not permitted to enter into obligations, that is to spend money, in absence of an appropriation.
Believe it or not, prior to that even if there had not been an appropriation passed by the beginning of the fiscal year, federal agencies would continue to spend money because essentially they were taking the position that Congress would not amend that. Congress could not have meant to stop funding them. But the attorney general said you can’t make the assumption that Congress didn’t mean that. The fact is that if there is not an appropriation, you don’t have the legal authority to spend money.
So after that point, after 1980, if agencies didn’t have appropriations, it meant they had to cease operations. Now, of course, this then led to sort of obvious questions which is okay. What if you are in the middle of a war? You know, do you at midnight on September thirtieth just kind of put your guns away and, you know, leave the battlefield because you don’t have an appropriation, so this led to the whole concept of exceptions and the fact that there were essential services that needed to continue and then the question sort of came down to okay, what is essential and what is non-essential?
Initially there was a pretty broad definition of what was essential but then there was a kind of separate opinion that said, you know, this idea of essentiality, if you will, you know, was not quite as elastic a concept as people might think and so we had kind of much tighter rules in terms of what is essential and non-essential. But, you know, the main issue and really one of the main issues that I was trying to focus on in this report was just to kind of shine light on the fact that it has become the norm rather than the rule to have continual resolutions and that the impacts of these continuing resolutions are relatively invisible. What you are trying to avoid is very visible; that is a government shutdown even if it doesn’t encompass the whole government. It always led to things like, you know, a padlock on the gates at Yellowstone National Park. You know, people not being able to do things, people going to social security offices to file for new benefits and, you know, there was no one home. So all of those things were visible. But the effect of continuing resolutions is more sort of invisible and we’ll get into this more later, I know, but the motivation for sort of talking about this is that this is not a world where government shutdowns are bad but continuing resolutions are okay. It’s a matter of kind of which bad you want to choose, you know, because the continuing resolutions have their own sort of cost.
Michael Keegan: So, Professor Joyce, how have relatively simple CRs given way over the years to more complicated ones, and more particularly, what are the issues now routinely addressed in CRs and what is the implication of this added complexity?
Phil Joyce: Well, part of the problem is that it is not like what we have. What we end up with is a CR and we know that it is going to cover a certain number of months in the year and then at that point, we’ll have an appropriation.
What has happened in many years is that you end up with multiple CRs and some of those CRs might cover ten days, two weeks, and so you just go from one CR to another. I mean, there have been years where ten or fifteen separate CRs relatively short. So I think one of the things that has happened over time is that we have gotten into this kind of serial CR, you know, for a particular fiscal year.
We’re okay, we have one CR. It expires on this date and then we’re going to have another one and then we’re going to have another one and then we’ll have another one and that makes it more and more difficult for agencies to plan. But the other thing that makes it difficult is that if you have a CR and you have a situation where what is occurring in the fiscal year that the CR covers is that programs are expanding for some reason. The CR doesn’t permit that unless you actually put language in the CR saying that that would happen.
A very specific example; we have lots of veterans coming home from Iraq and Afghanistan at this point so to just say that we’re going to continue the level of funding for the Department of Veteran’s Affairs at the same level as it has in the past when the veterans population is growing is not going to actually account for that increase. So you either have to somehow scale back on the services you provide or you have to have an exception in the CR that says well it’s continuing at the current rate except we’re going to allow the Department of Veteran’s Affairs budget to increase.
So part of what happens and part of the complexity stems from the fact that whenever anybody knows that we’re going to have a CR, then you have all of these requests that come in for what agencies refer to as anomalies and anomalies are simply exceptions to the general rule of the CR. So everybody thinks that they’re special and so everybody requests an anomaly and then there is all kinds of time that is spent between the White House, the Office of Management and Budget, the Congress in terms of sort of deciding well okay, who is going to get an exception to this CR and who isn’t going to get an exception to the CR?
Michael Keegan: Well, in diagnosing the problem, your report does a wonderful job providing historical context around things like the CR or shutdown and I would like for you to touch on the government shutdown concept and you acknowledged that the term shutdown is not entirely accurate. Would you elaborate on why this is the case and I think you alluded to it earlier?
Phil Joyce: Well, that’s right. The reason it’s not accurate is because in the first place, as I said earlier, when there is a shutdown, the whole government doesn’t shut down because there is this provision for some things being declared as essential but it’s actually even a little broader than that which is that the Congress – when I was describing the appropriations process earlier I didn’t say that – I did say that the Congress has an appropriations process; I didn’t say that appropriations process actually at this point consists of the Congress passing twelve different appropriations bills. So those twelve appropriations bills are organized at least broadly according to government functions so in some cases it is kind of hard to make sense out of why certain agencies are in appropriations bills together. But the fact is that most of the years, even when we have had a government shutdown imminent or threatened or even one that has occurred, it hasn’t encompassed the entire government because there have been some appropriations bills that have actually been passed and signed into law prior to it being the fiscal year.
The last government shutdown we had was 1995, late 1995, early 1996 but, for example, the Agriculture Department never shut down during that entire period of time, not because everyone in the Agriculture Department is considered to be essential but because the Agriculture Department had an appropriations bill. The legislative branch had an appropriations bill. But
the Interior Department, for example, did not have an appropriations bill. And so you might have a situation where, you know, you have an employee in the Department of Agriculture and an employee in the Department of Interior both working in the same area of the country but the Agriculture Department employee is at work and the Interior Department employee is not, not because the Agriculture Department employee is essential and the Interior Department employee is not, but because the Agriculture Department has an appropriations bill and the Interior Department does not. So, it’s much more complicated than to just say that either the government shuts down or the government does not shut down.
Michael Keegan: And I would like to talk about the ’95, ’96 shutdown and the effects. Your report does a wonderful job illustrating some of the effects of the shutdown both on the government agencies themselves and on their employees. Could you elaborate?
Phil Joyce: Well, first I have to give some credit, there was a really great congressional research service report that I relied on in part for this portion of the report which really sort of documented in some detail the effects of the ’95, ’96 shutdown. You know, I think the first thing to say is that morale of federal employees suffered and this is something that, you know, some people sort of view as kind of a throwaway. I don’t view it as a throwaway at all. You know, it seemed to be from the people that were kind of talked to, at least in this CRS research that was done, that federal employees felt like they were being used as pawns in this sort of larger political game between Congress and the White House.
I think beyond that, one sort of interesting thing that came out of this research is that it was kind of a blow to some of the people in some agencies to find out that their positions were considered non-essential. That is, the sort of notion that they go to work every day doing things that they view to be, you know, particularly important but then when push comes to shove, there was a whole long list that was made of, you know, these are the employees that are essential in every agency and these are the employees that are non-essential and so within an agency you could sort of have this bifurcation between, you know, we have a group of employees that really does good and important work and here’s this other group of employees and you guys have to go home. And so I think that was a general sort of issue for morale.
Clearly, there were service disruptions. You know, just a couple to kind of point out; every day over two hundred thousand requests for social security cards were not attended to so every day there were two hundred thousand requests that people wanted to make for social security cards and there was nobody there to make the request to. The park service closed three hundred and sixty eight sites during the shutdown so anybody who wanted to go visit any of those sites – too bad. You have to wait for the shutdown to be over. Veterans’ health and benefit claims were not processed. So there were real service disruptions that occurred and third, there were real financial costs.
Now, these financial costs are, you know, it’s hard to know what the kind of order of magnitude of possible range around, what the actual cost would be but there was an estimate from the Office of Management and Budget that put the cost at about $1.4 billion and that $1.4 billion does not count the kind of service disruptions. This was literally spending money for something that we didn’t get and the biggest bulk of this was that in every government shutdown, at least so far, whenever employees come back from shutdown, they are always paid retroactively. So what ended up happening was that we paid a whole lot of people for a significant amount of time that they did not work and that was just clearly sort of a cost in terms of loss productivity.
Michael Keegan: So, Professor Joyce, another term has entered our popular imagination and that is sequestration and I would like to understand what exactly is sequestration and what is the implication were it to go into effect January 2013?
Phil Joyce: Okay, well, the first is that there was something called the Budget Control Act and the Budget Control Act was what was passed by the Congress as, in a sense, a cost of the Congress agreeing to this increase in the debt ceiling of August 2011. And when the Budget Control Act was passed, it created this new joint select committee on deficit reduction which most people refer to as the super committee, although in retrospect it wasn’t so super.
But what happened was that the law said if the super committee reaches agreement on at least $1.2 trillion in cuts over ten years, then great. If it doesn’t then we’re going to put this process in place for there to be automatic spending cuts in order to substitute for that $1.2 trillion. Now, the Congress in its infinite wisdom thought it had passed a law where the effect of the automatic spending cuts would be so abhorrent to so many people that it would force the super committee to actually reach agreement because the worst possible thing would be to let this sequestration process kick in but guess what? The worst possible thing happened which is that it did allow the sequestration process to kick in and, without getting into mind numbing detail about sequestration, I think the best thing to do is just to sort of point out that in general, sequestration covers a time period from fiscal year 2013 through fiscal year 2021 and in every year, there are an equal amount of cuts totaling about $55 billion dollars each or $110 billion dollars total per year, equally divided between defense and non-defense.
So defense is going to be cut every year by $55 billion if the sequestration goes into effect, and non-defense programs are going to be cut by an equivalent $55 billion. Now, the $55 billion for non-defense is divided between some cuts in so-called mandatory programs which are entitlements like Medicare and some cuts in domestic discretionary spending. So the domestic discretionary cuts, that is the appropriated cuts, are a little bit less than the defense cuts but it is equal, you know, between defense and non-defense.
Now, the notion was that Republicans would never put up with a defense cut this big and that Democrats would never put up with Medicare and other domestic programs being cut so the question at this point is, because it still hasn’t taken effect, will it be allowed to take effect? President Obama in his budget proposal last year said I don’t want this to take effect but he recommended a substitute set of cuts that would substitute and would add up to the same amount of money but would substitute for the sequestration cuts. The Congress did not go along with that but they really have sort of three options at this point.
The first option is to let it take effect. The second option is to come up with an equivalent amount of cuts but have substitute cuts. The third option would be to reduce the amount that would be covered under sequestration or somehow change the law, you know, from where it was, because, I hate to put this flippantly but it’s only a law. And, you know, laws can be changed.
Michael Keegan: How does budgetary uncertainty impact federal agencies? We will explore this question and so much more when our special edition of The Business of Government Hour: A Conversation with Authors, returns.
Welcome back to a special edition of The Business of Government Hour: A Conversation with Authors, exploring ideas for improving government effectiveness with Professor Phil Joyce, a budget expert at the University of Maryland and author of the recent IBM Center report “The Cost of Budget Uncertainty: Analyzing the Impacts of Late Appropriation.”
So, Professor Joyce, you note in your report “The Cost of Uncertainty,” that there are two things that make CRs hard to deal with for federal agencies. Could you elaborate on those two things?
Phil Joyce: Sure. One of the things that make CRs hard to deal with for federal agencies is if they extend far into the fiscal year. One really interesting thing that I sort of uncovered when I started talking to lots of people in federal agencies, and this was really consistent regardless of what agency I was dealing with, is that this is now so normal, the fact that they are not getting appropriations on time, that people have adjusted their behavior to assume that they are not going to get their appropriations until around January first even though they should be getting them on October first. But what begins to make it more and more difficult for them, is if it begins to extend beyond January first. So one of the things that makes it more difficult is if you have late appropriations or continuing resolutions but they extend past the beginning of the calendar year because then there is just more uncertainty in terms of the eventual amount of money you are going to get and, you know, agencies, as we’ll talk about, tend to put off certain kinds of actions until they are more sure of what their appropriation is going to be. So the longer that extends, the more they are sort of compressing everything they need to do into a shorter timeframe.
The second thing, and we kind of alluded to this further that makes CRs harder to deal with is when there are lots of them. That is when you have these shorter CRs; they cover a shorter period of time like a week or ten days and I think the main issue with that is that creates implementation challenges. There are examples that we uncovered and also the government accountability office did a great study in 2009 where they talked about this, that agencies actually end up doing a number of short-term contracts so that where they would normally do a contract for an entire year, you end up having a contract that only covers the period that is covered by the CR. So you literally enter into a ten day contract because it is only a ten day CR or a two week contract. And every time you do another contract, there is more and more transaction costs that are associated with that and frankly there is more room to make errors to sort of have audit findings later on so that when you have these multiple shorter CRs, even if multiple shorter CRs might, in total, cover a shorter period of time than one longer CR, you know, having one longer CR would sort of be better than having a number of shorter CRs.
Michael Keegan: And your report does a terrific job of sort of outlining the ramifications of budget uncertainty and I want to talk about one area or multiple areas but under the personnel workforce specifically. What is the impact that budget uncertainty has in hiring, personal actions, and morale issues, and more importantly, what are some of the key issues facing agencies when they’re dealt with that?
Phil Joyce: Well, the first thing that tends to happen is that agencies freeze hiring and this is a rational response in a sense, if you have uncertainty, you don’t know how much money you’re going to get, to freeze hiring. Now, sometimes there are what were kind of referred to in my research as hard hiring freezes and this is somebody tells you that you can’t hire anybody but there also are what I would call soft hiring freezes which is where somebody is kind of looking at the budgetary landscape and they are saying I don’t know how much money I am going to get and I really think it would be better for me to wait until I have a little more information to decide whether I am going to hire somebody or not hire somebody.
In addition, if they really think that a government shutdown might be in the offing at some point, this could lead them to sending and sometimes they are required to send furlough notices to employees to sort of say to employees okay, we don’t know if we are getting appropriation on time. If we don’t, then we’re putting you on notice that you may have to actually take a leave for a while until we have an appropriation.
One of the big problems with hiring freezes is that turnover doesn’t occur consistently throughout an agency so if you freeze hiring, you might have fewer people that are working in a particular area and you end up with skill gaps in that area as opposed to saying well, okay, we have turnover of five percent and that five percent sort of comes equally throughout our agency. So a hiring freeze itself can lead to kind of skill gaps in key areas.
The second is that this morale effect which I think comes partially from employees feeling kind of undervalued in this whole process but also if you send somebody a furlough notice, it’s going to get their attention and one of the problems is that people may leave and frankly it is true in any organization that the people who are most likely to leave are probably the people that you least want to have leave. That is they are the people who have other options. The people who don’t have other options probably won’t leave so do you really want to put yourself in this situation where what you have is a workforce of people and the reason they are still there is because they actually didn’t have options to go anywhere else. So I think that is a big problem that occurs as well.
The other thing that I think is a little bit separate from this but it is still in the general kind of human capital management area is that one of the first responses that many agencies make to having uncertainty in funding is to suspend training and development, to just say this is an optional thing; we’re not going to send anybody to training. You see very little training at this point that goes on in the federal government in the first quarter of the fiscal year because people just say I’m not going to have an appropriation, you know, so I’m not going to do it.
When it begins to extend past the beginning of the year, what you begin to see is kind of longer and longer training delays and what that ultimately leads to, if you are trying to compress all of your training into a shorter period of time, is you just don’t have time to do all of it and that is, I think, a kind of insidious sort of effect which is, you know, training is not all boondoggles. Training is, I think, because of this GSA scandal that I think many people have heard about, there is a sort of notion that, you know, that when we’re talking about training for federal employees, we’re just talking about sending them someplace nice so they can sort of soak up the sun and, you know, have fun. The fact is that in an agency like the Department of Defense, do we really want them to not continue training their personnel? I mean in any walk of life, continuing to kind of be trained and stay on top of what you’re doing is what keeps you sharp and I think that we have had a systematic underinvestment in training in the federal government and I think a lot of it is driven by a lot of this budget uncertainty.
Michael Keegan: And you mentioned earlier the GAO 2009 study around contracting implications of budget uncertainty. I would like for you to talk a little bit more about that. How have agencies adjusted their mindset and can you delve a little bit deeper into how budget uncertainty effects contracting?
Phil Joyce: One of the things I’ve found that agencies have done is that they just don’t have any or many contracts that are renewed in the first quarter of the fiscal year anymore so they’ve kind of adjusted by saying we don’t want to have contracts renewed at a point where it’s going to be sort of uncertain how much money we’re going to get. So you’ve seen dates for contract renewals sort of pushed back.
Now, I think that is a very positive response but, again, if you’re trying to compress all of your contracting activity into a shorter period of time, then it really makes it very difficult for contracting offices that have to kind of adjust to this increased workload in a shorter period of time.
And the other thing that I think that this does is it leads to less competition. That is if you’re out there and you’re thinking about contracting with a federal agency in the first place, you kind of look at the general environment and you see all of this uncertainty and second, you end up with a request for a proposal that is put out there and it has a kind of very short timeframe for you to respond because the whole time period for kind of the review of contracts is compressed, you might just decide that it’s not worth it.
And a couple of people have said to me when I was talking to them that this effect itself is not just an effect, perhaps, on the quality of service that federal agencies can receive. It also effects cost because if you have less competition because you have fewer contractors that are kind of willing to play the game because the game is a difficult game to play, then that has the effect of, because of decreased competition, actually increasing the price that federal agencies end up having to pay for whatever service they are contracting for.
Michael Keegan: And your report does a terrific job of talking about the impact of cost and I want to talk about that a little bit more and can you outline for us what are the consequences of budget uncertainty vis-à-vis cost and would multi-year budget planning assist or remedy this issue?
Phil Joyce: Well, I think the first thing to say is that because the federal budget process, even it worked well, is an annual process. That itself creates some increases undoubtedly in cost over and above what would be true if, let’s say you had a five year plan arise.
I talked to federal contractors who said that the way that they deal with commercial contracts is sort of fundamentally different than the way they deal with federal agency contracts because commercial contracts, they can lock something in for five years and they can be pretty sure there’s a sort of steady flow of funding. They can’t be as sure in the case of a federal agency contract.
Now, I was never able to actually get anybody to do anything except elude to the fact that this might be kind of generally true but I have this notion that there is a sort of risk premium that the federal government is paying over and above what would be paid if they were dealing with a commercial contract because that additional risk has to be borne by someone and it’s almost as if, I believe, it’s kind of an industry-wide risk premium; that is probably all contractors charge federal agencies more than they otherwise would if there weren’t as much uncertainty.
Now, there were a couple of specific examples that GAO was able to uncover which frankly are most notable because of their precision. You know, what you mostly get in this area is people saying yes, the costs are higher but not being able to actually point to exactly how much higher they are. The Bureau of Prisons reported to GAO that there was one prison in West Virginia that cost $5.4 million more than it would have been if funding had been provided on time. Now, the reason they knew that is because they were about to sign a contract at a particular point and they knew how much they were signing it for and by the time they actually delayed it to that later point in time, it cost $5.4 million more than it would have at that earlier point. So I think this is a clear case where what you have is a situation where there are increased costs.
The other thing is that agencies routinely delay routine maintenance in response to funding delays and uncertainty. So, you know, just like if you decided to save money by not changing the oil in your car, eventually you would pay that cost unless you can figure out someone to sell your car to who didn’t know that you hadn’t been maintaining it. But federal agencies can’t figure out how it is that they are going to sell their assets to someone else in order to make it someone else’s problem so the short-term savings that is gained from short changing maintenance leads to longer term costs for federal agencies and clearly to the extent that you can tie that directly back to delaying maintenance because of uncertainty in funding; that is a clear case where there are increased costs that occur.
There also are cases – it’s a small number but it could become a larger number actually as we are beginning to reduce the budget – where a continuing resolution, because it requires you to continue doing the things that you are already doing, actually requires you to continue to do things that you have already decided to stop doing. That is, you, you know, that is in fiscal year 2013 you are going to close this facility, but now you have a continuing resolution and you have to keep it open until the point at which you get a new appropriation and then at that point you can stop doing it. And there were a couple of examples that people gave me of cases where that was actually true.
Michael Keegan: That leads into the next area, the two areas I want to talk about besides cost and that is when you adopt a late budget, it has to have an effect on the efficiency and effectiveness of government. Would you elaborate?
Phil Joyce: Well, I think we should start by saying part of that is kind of part and parcel of, you know, if you go back to the question that you asked earlier about hiring freezes for example, once you decide that you are going to adjust your personnel compliment in order to deal with the fact that you might get a late appropriation or you might have a funding delay, what you are doing by definition is you are holding down the level of service. And so part of what happens is that you may be holding down the level of service unnecessarily because, you know, you’re doing it out of fear of what you might end up with in terms of an appropriation but you didn’t really need to. I’m not saying it isn’t a rational response; I’m just saying that you wouldn’t have provided service at that level if you had just gotten an appropriation for the whole fiscal year to begin with.
In addition to that, there are some years where agencies are instructed to actually prepare for a government shutdown. Now, the interesting thing I think that I found in my research was that, of course we haven’t had all appropriation bills enacted on time since the shutdowns of 1995 and 1996 so theoretically, OMB, the Office of Management and Budget, could have instructed federal agencies to prepare for a shutdown in every year after that but they didn’t which meant that, in a sense, they believed that the problem would eventually sort of be resolved, that there would not be a shutdown.
In 2011, they weren’t sure because it really looked like and for the first time since 1996 we might actually have a government shutdown and so they instructed agencies to prepare for government shutdowns and this is just a complete waste of time. Now, it’s not a complete waste of time if a shutdown actually occurs, but of course that’s not a good thing. That’s what you’re trying to avoid. But any time in 2011 that agencies spent preparing shutdown plans and OMB spent reviewing shutdown plans, just a complete waste of time.
There are also lots of conversations that occur after there is a continuing resolution around what is permitted under a CR and what is not permitted under a CR. It turns out that even the definition of what you were already doing, if the sort of notion is you shouldn’t be doing anything you weren’t already doing, that becomes a topic of some debate. You know, there are some agencies that say well, okay. We didn’t send people to this training conference last year; therefore, we’re not permitted to do it under the continuing resolution.
Well, another interpretation of that is well, you did send people to training last year; therefore, you are permitted to send people to training again under a continuing resolution. Somebody is adjudicating those disputes. Somebody is taking that information and is talking about those kinds of questions. And then, again, we talked a little bit about this earlier, this idea that there can be many shorter contracts and grant awards. Every time you have a new contract award, it takes time in order to process that contract award. So all of these things kind of eat away at the efficiency and effectiveness of government and it’s possible that any one of them may not by itself have a tremendous effect but the cumulative effect of all of them, I think, is substantial.
Michael Keegan: And I would like to stay on this point around CRs before we move to the other aspects of the society economy that get effected by this and that is can you tell us from your research, the short and long-term CRs, are there positives and negatives? Is one better than the other? Does it matter? What has your research found?
Phil Joyce: Well, I think that the main effect of a longer term CR, again, one that extends past about three months, is it just delays much more the implementation of what the real budget is so the hiring freezes are extended, the procurement delays, the training reductions. You are compressing the time in which you are actually doing your real work, you know, to a shorter period of time. So you could sort of take that and say well okay. It would be better to have a shorter term CR than a longer term CR. That is, all other things being equal, four months under a CR is better than five months under a CR but not so fast.
And my not so fast comes from the fact that you can say well okay. A shorter time period covered by a CR is better as long as that shorter time period doesn’t mean that you had ten CRs in four months. I think that becomes the sort of countervailing issue in a sense. It’s that it’s not automatically clear to me that one CR that covers six months which is what agencies are under right now is automatically worse even though it covers a longer time period than a situation where you might have only four months’ worth of CRs but it would have taken you ten CRs in order to get there because at least agencies right now are able to plan for this six month window. I mean, their big problem is that they don’t know what is going to happen after the six months but at least within the six months there is some amount of, I think, kind of reasonable planning that can go on.
Michael Keegan: And, Professor Joyce, your report for the IBM Center, “The Cost of Uncertainty,” does a wonderful job of pointing out that the federal agencies aren’t the only ones affected by this budget uncertainty or living on the CR so to speak. State and local governments and the folks that receive funds from the federal government are also effected. Could you elaborate?
Phil Joyce: Well, in the first place I think it’s important to point out that there is a significant amount of money that flows from the federal government to state and local governments and state and local governments would like to know how much money they are going to get and when they are going to get it. And I think that the main difficulty is that they have difficulty planning for the receipt of federal funds; not only planning for the amount but also planning for the timing of those funds. I think it’s actually really clearly illustrated right now in the conversation about the fiscal cliff.
You know, if you go to state and local governments right now, and even I was looking at a website for the National Association of State Budget Officers the other day and they have a whole report for state budget offices on what is the fiscal cliff and what is in it for you or better put what is not in it for you? And I think that the issue is that they don’t know how much money they are going to get. You know, they don’t know how this fiscal cliff discussion is going to come out and they don’t know how much money they are going to get as a result of this and so that makes it difficult for them to plan.
This also is true at the level of individual programs. That is, you can have individual programs that are the subject of some debate in terms of whether they are going to continue or not and many of these programs are programs where there are applications that have to be received from state of local governments to federal agencies and so you might have an application deadline for a particular program and put state and local government, you know, grant writing offices in the difficult position of having to kind of put a request in for an award for a grant and they don’t know whether that grant is actually going to continue or not.
And there was a case that I found in the Department of Education. There was a program for teaching American history and they had made the decision in the Department of Education that they were going to solicit the proposals because they knew that if they didn’t do that, they wouldn’t have enough time to review them and get the money out and then eventually when the final budget was passed, the program was cancelled. So, they had put all of these state and local governments through this whole process which is not cost free of applying for a grant that no longer existed and that is just a kind of specific example but I think it’s a good example of the kind of uncertainty this can create for state and local government.
Michael Keegan: You also point out in your report, Professor Joyce, that along with the federal government, federal agencies, and state and local governments that are effected with budget uncertainty, so is federal contractors. Would you elaborate on the implication budget uncertainty has for federal contractors and what does this really mean?
Phil Joyce: Well, I think that the first thing to say is that I think federal contractors are, in a very real sense, in more immediate danger than federal agencies are. When there are government shutdowns, at least historically as I said earlier, every time there is a government shutdown, even if some people are sent home, they are always paid retroactively for the work that was missed. There has never been a case where a contractor was paid retroactively for the work that was missed under a shutdown. So if a contractor thinks that there is a real possibility that the government may shutdown, now they have to think about how that is going to affect their bottom line. And I think the contractors probably are much quicker to lay off employees than federal agencies are in part because employees don’t have the kinds of civil service guarantees that federal employees have.
So I think you’re going to see a more immediate effect and even in the case of the fiscal cliff, you know, the first potential effects that you saw talked about were the effects on contractors or contractors beginning to send notices out or put their employees on notice that if bad things happen, you know, we may be in a situation where you are out of a job.
The other thing that tends to happen is that contractors may kind of look at the environment out there and they may pull their most valuable employees from contracts where there is more uncertainty for continued funding and put them in contracts where there is more certainty. So you might be, as a federal agency, in the situation where you have been working with a particular contractor, a particular set of people, for some period of time and now because of funding uncertainty issues, the contractor might say well, I’m not going to put this person in your agency anymore. I’m going to pull them off and put them somewhere else because the somewhere else really looks like some place where there is a lot better chance of having continued funding.
And certainly since federal contractors are, you know, many of them are firms with stockholders. There is evidence out there that uncertainty actually affects their stock values. The other thing I think to say is that federal contracting is not just, as I’m sure all of your listeners know, federal contracting is not just a federal agency contracting with a contractor. It’s a federal agency contracting with a contractor which then contracts with several sub-contractors to do additional work.
From everything that I had been able to tell, smaller sub-contractors, to the extent that sub-contractors are smaller, tend to feel the effects much more quickly than the prime contractors do because if you are a relatively small contractor, you have a sub-contract with some larger contractor and you only contract with the federal government. You don’t contract with any sort of commercial clients. Then everything is wrapped up in that particular contract and if the prime contractor takes a cut, they are not just – if they take a ten percent cut, they are not going to take that ten percent cut and just pass on that ten percent to all of the sub-contractors. They are probably going to lessen the effect on the prime contractor and increase the effect on the sub-contractor. So I think that that’s another place, you know, the sub-contractor effects where you can see large impacts.
Michael Keegan: We’ll explore what the future holds and highlight key recommendations from the IBM Center Report “The Cost of Budget Uncertainty” when this special edition of The Business of Government Hour returns.
Welcome back to a special edition of The Business of Government Hour: A Conversation with Authors, exploring ideas for improving government effectiveness with Professor Phil Joyce, a budget expert at the University of Maryland and author of the recent IBM Center report “The Cost of Budget Uncertainty: Analyzing the Impacts of Late Appropriation.”
Professor Joyce, I would like to understand what prompted your interest in this research area and would you tell us more about your study methodology and who participated in your research?
Phil Joyce: Well, the truth is that I simply believed and I believed more as every year went by and we kind of were repeating the same dance that we had had in the past year, that at least outside of the executive branch of the federal government, many people were largely numb to the effects of funding uncertainty and government by CR. That is that the assumption seemed to be that as long as we avoid a government shutdown, then everything is okay. And I wanted to document that government by CR is not okay.
And, you know, it’s hard to see for the people, frankly, who can do the most about this which are members of Congress, where they see the effects of this. That is, you’d be hard pressed to point to a member of Congress who was not re-elected because they can’t pass appropriations bills on time. And so there is this kind of notion, you know, implicitly that this is a cost-free endeavor. This is just the way we do things and I wanted to try to document the fact that while it might be the way we do things, it doesn’t mean that the way we do things is okay and that if we – if we could find a way to avoid doing it this way, there would be positive effects.
In terms of how I did the research, I was lucky to have a number of reports, especially from the congressional research service and the GAO that documented some of these effects and I know I mentioned it earlier but this 2009 study by GAO, if your listeners are interested in knowing more about this, this was really a terrific piece of work and saved me a lot of trouble because it documented a lot of these effects. Of course, it documented them leading up to and including maybe around 2007 or 2008. There were a number of things that had happened since then but, if they hadn’t done this work, I would have had to sort of recreate it myself.
I then augmented that work with interviews of federal agency employees from a number of different agencies and also contractors and some representatives of state and local government groups who gave me a lot of good additional insights. And so this was a kind of a sum of this archival work, the work that had been done others and then this interview work that I did to augment that.
Michael Keegan: Could you tell us a little bit about yourself?
Phil Joyce: Well, I currently teach at the School of Public Policy at the University of Maryland and we have at the School of Public Policy, we’re mostly a graduate school and we have a master’s degree program in public policy, a PhD and several other master’s programs and we’re really training the next generation of government workers but increasingly, also people that go into non-profits. And so, you know, this is kind of what I do for a living is to teach budgeting and to teach budgeting to kind of bright, young graduate students.
And I’ve taught at several other places. I’ve been at Maryland a couple of years. I taught at George Washington University for eleven years. I was also at Syracuse University for five years. In addition to my work as an academic, I have twelve years of public sector work experience and I worked seven years for the state of Illinois and five years at the US Congressional Budget Office and it was really the time I spent at CBO that I think most sort of spurred my interest in this particular area, well there were many good things that I got out of working at CBO but one of them was to be sort of immersed into the budget process and understand kind of how it works and how it doesn’t work.
My research interests run broadly to the federal budget process and also to connections either real or imagined between performance information and the budget I didn’t really report actually for the IBM Center that was focused on these linkages between performance and the budget. And actually, I want to give a brief plug. My most recent book is on my role at the Congressional Budget Office and the policy process. It was published by Georgetown Press in 2011 but that is really one of my main interests is in sort of thinking about the role of information and analysis and how that information and analysis and how what I call in that book at least, honest numbers, can influence the budget process.
Michael Keegan: That is a great way to transition. When I was reading your report, “The Cost of Budget Uncertainty: Analyzing the Impact of Late Appropriations” for the IBM Center, I noticed the terrific job you did setting the historical context. But it doesn’t stop there. You also outline very practical, actionable recommendations and I would like to explore each of them. Would you highlight the key recommendations you offer in your Center report? What are some of the key benefits of pursuing these recommendations and more particularly, are there any significant obstacles to implementing them?
Phil Joyce: Well, I think, you know, it was interesting when I got to the point where I was working on recommendations, I almost kind of left this out but I thought I would leave it out or I could put it in bold and I ended up putting it in bold and that was a recommendation that the Congress should just fulfill its constitutional responsibility and routinely enact appropriations before the beginning of the fiscal year.
I mentioned to one of the people in a federal agency that I had interviewed, you know, that I had put this in the report and that person’s response was “Did it make you feel better?” You know, and that was essentially to say, well, okay, but now what? So the now what is okay. Let’s say the Congress is going to do that. What are the things that we could think about that might actually make the situation better? There are a few of those.
One of them is, I think that more funding should be made available on a multi-year basis or what is called a no year basis. You know, agencies that have less money that is available only for one year have an easier time navigating this process. And so to think about are there cases where we can actually allow agencies to spend money over a longer period of time as is true for the Department of Defense for example. They have a lot of money that can be spent over a longer period of time. I think the reason that that tends not to happen is because the Congress is trying to keep more control and so there is this sort of trade-off between the Congress having control and agencies having more flexibility. But I think that the Congress should consider giving up some of that control since the problems that are being caused by federal agencies are largely a result of congressional inaction to begin with.
A second recommendation I had which is one that strikes some people as sort of odd is that the Congress should simply stop engaging in CRs at all. That is the Congress should be prohibited from enacting continuing resolutions. Now, the reason that is considered odd by some people is that it actually flies in the face of what is more frequently a recommendation which is that you should have what are called automatic continuing resolutions that Congress should not have to actually take action in order to pass a continuing resolution. If there isn’t an appropriation, you should just have a continuing resolution.
I think that just makes it easier to have a continuing resolution and I’d actually like to make it harder so I think if you prohibited continuing resolutions, what would end up happening is that you would have two choices. You would either shut the government down or you pass a budget and if that is the choice, I think it would make more transparent the effect of inaction which is actually what I want to do. So that was my second recommendation.
Third, I think that if there are CRs, they should not just be funding at the prior year’s level but they should permit inflation area increases and the reason for that is because, you know, often what happens is, you know, because inflation is going to occur, a CR actually does not permit agencies to keep doing the things they are already doing. It actually requires them to cut back on some things they’re already doing in order to finance inflation which I think runs counter to what should be the – at least in principle, the spirit of what a CR should be.
Fourth, I think that the Congress should get out of the business or at least reduce the amount that they micromanage the budget execution process. In many cases now, if the agency gets an appropriation, the Congress wants to see a spending plan from that agency and implicitly to approve that spending plan prior to the agency being able to actually carry out the budget. Well, that’s fine if you did the budget on time but, you know, if you’re doing it six months into the fiscal year, all that does is further compress the time period in which the budget needs to be executed. And, again, if the Congress isn’t going to do its work on time, I think they should sort of not get involved in that kind of micromanagement.
And then the final thing I would say is that if there are going to be CRs, they should be limited to a small number, one or two per year that don’t extend past the end of the calendar year. We can sort of put up with the kind of three month delay in the appropriations process. It’s not optimal, but it’s not awful. But once you get into six months into the fiscal year and once you get into five or ten separate CRs, that’s where the costs begin to really go up.
Michael Keegan: So as we close our conversation today, I want to get your sense of the future, the immediate future given the fiscal realities of today. But more importantly, in your mind, do you think we can reverse the current budgetary uncertainty that seems to mark today’s operations of government?
Phil Joyce: Well, I think the two are related. I mean, if we were actually able to develop a multi-year plan for dealing with the fiscal cliff and reducing the budget deficit and that plan established a path for discretionary spending, then I think there would be fewer things to disagree about going forward and that might itself make it easier to reach agreement on the budget and make the process more timely.
Now, then the question is I don’t know whether it’s a two trillion dollar question or a four trillion dollar question; it depends on the day. But is the Congress or are the Congress and the president going to be able to reach some kind of an agreement? You know, I’ve spent a long time, I’d say at least ten years, being pessimistic about the federal budget process. I’m not that pessimistic right now.
You know, since the election, I have heard a number of people say well we have the status quo. President Obama is still president. The Senate is still controlled by the Democrats. The house is still controlled by the Republicans. Nothing is going to change. I don’t think that’s actually true. I think there are a number of reasons to be a little bit more hopeful about that.
First, I think it’s significant that the president doesn’t have to run for re-election. The president does not have to think about how whatever actions he takes are going to be sort of perceived by people who might be voting for him or not voting for him four years from now.
Second, I don’t think it’s in anyone’s interest to really go off the cliff. Now, there is a question of what it means to really go off the cliff. I think that it’s not necessarily true that if we don’t reach an agreement by January first that means that all of these things are necessarily going to have a big effect. Where people are going to see this most immediately is that the IRS will have to adjust the withholding tables. People will see more taken out of their paychecks. Now, that could be undone later on and as we take money from people, we could give it back to them.
I think the kind of most likely scenario, in my view, is that we figure out a way to keep ourselves from going off the cliff in the short run and kind of set ourselves up for something that happens in 2013. That is a sort of larger debate on the budget and the reason I think it is more likely to happen in 2013 is because I think that enough members of Congress will figure out that they don’t want to be running for election or re-election in 2014 with this big issue still hanging over their head, that it will be in their interest to do something in 2013.
The reason they’re not going to wait until 2014 is because at least if you do something in 2013, you give it some chance to begin to take effect and also you give people a chance to sort of forget some of the pain that may have been inflicted on them in the process of reaching this agreement because there is no way that we’re ultimately going to reach this agreement without taking something away from someone that they have now. We’re going to have to spend less money and we’re going to have to tax people more. The question is where are we going to spend less and who are we going to tax and how much?
I see something happening. If you ask me the next question which is exactly how do I see it happening, I have no idea. I just think that it seems to be that the stars are sort of aligned in a way that they haven’t been in a long time.
Michael Keegan: Professor Joyce, I want to thank you for joining us today but more importantly I’d like to thank you for your recent IBM Center report “The Cost of Budget Uncertainty: Analyzing the Impact of Late Appropriations.”
Phil Joyce: Well, I really appreciate the opportunity to be here and all of the good questions and I hope that people get something out of the report if they read it.
Michael Keegan: This has been a special edition of The Business of Government Hour: A Conversation with Author, exploring ideas for improving government effectiveness with Professor Phil Joyce of the University of Maryland and author of the recent IBM Center report “The Cost of Budget Uncertainty.”
You may download or order a free copy of this and all Center reports at Business of Government dot org. Be sure to join us next week for another informative, insightful, and in-depth conversation on improving government effectiveness. For The Business of Government Hour, I’m Michael Keegan and thanks for joining us.
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