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The uncounted hours federal employees have spent planning for budget contingencies amid political and fiscal uncertainty reduce agency productivity and lower morale, witnesses told a Senate panel on Wednesday.
The Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee hearing came just as President Obama and the House and Senate Budget committees met on Capitol Hill but made little progress toward a solution to the fiscal stalemate.
“By failing to provide timely, predictable budgets we are generating waste throughout our government and exporting some of that waste to our state and local partners and everyone who relies on us,” said Sen. Tom Carper, D-Del., chairman of the committee.
The absence of timely budgets, he said, creates “an uncertainty tax.”
Sen. Tom Coburn, R-Okla., agreed with Carper that the budget crisis is “a bipartisan failure of leadership.” The reason the Senate has not enacted a budget in four years, Coburn said, is that “it has sought not to meet the needs of government but to meet needs of politicians, focusing on the short-term and not the long-term.” The fact that Congress failed to pass all 12 spending bills in 18 of the last 24 years and relied on continuing resolutions, he said, “kills the agencies. It doesn’t allow for judgment or let them do what they’re supposed to do. The inefficiency and the increased cost I would lay at the feet of Congress and the president.”
Routine CRs are “at least as worthy of attention, and may indeed be more damaging, than sequestration or brief government shutdowns,” Philip Joyce, a professor of management, finance, and leadership at the University of Maryland School of Public Policy and author of a recent study on the harm from late budgets, testified. “Some of these costs are financial, and some represent inefficiencies and compromised effectiveness for federal programs. All of these negative impacts are self-inflicted, however, and are entirely preventable.”
Budget uncertainty also affects the federal workforce, Joyce added. “People leave government because of lowered morale,” he said, “and they’re not necessarily the ones you want to leave.”
He also noted that despite the Office of Management and Budget’s early prohibition on planning for sequestration for fear of harming productivity, “any rational agency would begin planning given what they could see coming. And once OMB pulled the switch, they went into high gear. But nothing about developing these plans contributes to mission success of these agencies.”
Witnesses’ recommendations for fixing the problem ranged from biennial budgeting, to improved communication with agencies, to banning continuing resolutions or limiting their duration to giving agency budget planners more freedom to move funds around when they arrive late.
Most agreed that wasteful spending can be found to ease the budget stalemate. “Congress doesn’t do a good job of oversight and tends to oversee a crisis but not the operations,” said Sen. Mark Begich, D-Alaska. “Congress doesn’t do enough review of whether this or that program should exist.”