Dr. Joyner points us to an example of what is, sadly, an all too common practice in Washington, but perhaps one which is coming with the worst timing and optics possible. As Congress battles back and forth over spending and whether or not we’ll even be able to keep the lights on in Washington, government agencies have been busy running out and spending like mad to use up all the remaining cash in their budgets so they don’t lose it for next year.
This past week, the Department of Veterans Affairs bought $562,000 worth of artwork.
In a single day, the Agriculture Department spent $144,000 on toner cartridges.
And, in a single purchase, the Coast Guard spent $178,000 on “Cubicle Furniture Rehab.”
This string of big-ticket purchases was an unmistakable sign: It was “use it or lose it” season again in Washington.
All week, while Congress fought over next year’s budget, federal workers were immersed in a separate frantic drama. They were trying to spend the rest of this year’s budget before it is too late.
The reason for their haste is a system set up by Congress that, in many cases, requires agencies to spend all their allotted funds by Sept. 30.
If they don’t, the money becomes worthless to them on Oct. 1. And — even worse — if they fail to spend the money now, Congress could dock their funding in future years. The incentive, as always, is to spend.
Dr. Joyner offers what should seem like a common sense solution to this preposterous state of affairs. Of course, since it involves “common sense” that probably means it’s physically impossible inside the beltway.
Given that this is one of those “everybody knows” situations, one would think that Congress would have changed government accounting rules decades ago to fix the problem. Why not just let agencies keep unspent monies and apply them rationally to cover unexpected expenses or shortfalls the next year?
Last weekend I offered up a crazy idea about just telling every agency in the government and the military that they will have to find a way to make due with 1% less than they had in the previous year. Tagging off of Joyner’s suggestion, here’s an alternate idea. If you spend all your money, you get a 1% cut next year. But if you finish with a surplus, you get to keep the saved cash up to an amount equal to 0.5% of your budget, carrying it over to the next year. In that fashion, the agencies which manage to be frugal face less of a cut than anyone else. (And in government budget wars, if you get less of a cut than everyone else, you still “win” the battle.)
Again, it’s not a permanent solution in any sense. Until we reach the point of having the national will to put a leash on the government and have it spend less money than it takes in, all we are doing is rearranging the deck chairs on the Titanic. We’ll still go under… it will just take longer. But if we can at least slow the decline significantly through across the board, modest cuts and elimination of stupidity such as these “use it or lose it” spending sprees, we buy some time to force a dose of sanity into the conversation.