Why a Government Spending Freeze is Incomprehensible to Bureaucrats

In today’s Washington Post, columnist David Ignatius takes Congress to task for its failure to pass the appropriations bills – and not just this year but almost every year since 1977.

“The talk among some of my government buddies this week was an obscure term of federal budgeting known as a “continuing resolution.” This is what Congress passes when it hasn’t gotten its act together to pass a real appropriations bill before the start of a new fiscal year. The ‘CR,’ as it’s known, allows agencies to continue operating at the same spending level as the previous year. But it plays havoc with normal management functions such as planning and contracting.”

“[University of Maryland political scientist Roy T. Meyers] summarized the inefficiencies that result from having to run an agency without knowing your budget. ‘When regular appropriations are delayed, uncertainty about final appropriations leads many managers to hoard funds; in some cases, hiring and purchasing stops.’” [Emphasis mine.]

I don’t really have a problem with Congress getting very little done.  And I kinda like CRs, especially if they last all year.  Those sorts of CRs dramatically limit spending, as evidenced by the just-lapsed fiscal year. The budget won’t grow until Congress passes all the appropriations bills.  That’s probably what Ignatius and his “government buddies” don’t like.

When Congress passes a CR, it’s wrong to say that an agency head won’t know what his likely budget will be.  He knows exactly what it will be: last year’s spending level.  This simply means managers have to live within the constraint of a budget that isn’t higher than last year’s.

Of course, businesses have to deal with this sort of thing all the time when their profits dry up.  Perhaps it should be no surprise to the cynical that government bureaucrats – who have a guaranteed “customer base” (read: taxpayers) because anyone who doesn’t “buy” their product (read: tax evaders) can be arrested – don’t like to deal with it.