Advice from the GAO on how to deal with the coming continuing resolution

The upcoming Sept. 30 deadline will bring another continuing resolution. And CRs don't have to spoil agency planning.

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Congress has managed to appropriate $6 or $7 trillion for this and that in the past few years, but it’s never been able to pass a regular federal budget on time. The upcoming Sept. 30 deadline will bring another continuing resolution. And CRs don’t have to spoil agency planning. The Federal Drive with Tom Temin  heard more from the Director of Strategic Issues at the Government Accountability Office, Jeff Arkin.

Interview transcript:

Tom Temin: Mr. Arkin, good to have you on.

Jeff Arkin: Hi, Tom, thanks for having me today.

Tom Temin: And you have looked at three agencies that have muddled or managed their way through continuing resolutions. Let’s begin with just the characteristics of CRs because they’re not all the same. And your latest report kind of describes the forms and ways they might take. Review that for us first.

Jeff Arkin: Sure. And as you mentioned, they are fairly common continuing resolutions, or CRs as we call them, have been a very consistent feature of appropriations in the federal government. Since 1977, when we switched to a fiscal year starting on Oct. 1, there’s been at least one CR in all but three of those years. So again, this is a fairly common occurrence at this time. In particular, we looked at the last 13 years, so starting in 2010, up till the current fiscal year of 2022. And over that time, there were a total of 47 continuing resolutions, but at least again, one in every year. The average time was about three months. So although sometimes they may have only been for a day or two other times, they’re quite a bit longer, there was one that lasted almost half a year. And in a couple of years, we have the situation where eventually a continuing resolution was passed for the entire fiscal year. There were a few times when there was a lapse in appropriations and the times when the regular appropriations or a continuing resolution had expired without a new continuing resolution in place. And that caused what we commonly referred to as the government shutdown, or at least a partial government shutdown. And the last one being in 2019, which lasted for over a month, as I’m sure many of your listeners remember.

Tom Temin: Sure. So it sounds like the CRs have more variants than COVID. And looking at the operational legal guidance, GAO itself has compiled quite a library of guidance and information legally, operationally on this, haven’t they?

Jeff Arkin: Yeah, absolutely. And I think the main source of that guidance are principles of federal appropriations law, or it’s commonly known as the Red Book cleverly, because when they used to print things it had a red cover. And the red book provides a broad discussion on many aspects of federal fiscal law, including continuing resolutions. And so it provides illustrations of the legal principles and their applications through discussions of statutes, judicial decisions, other sources, like GAO legal decisions and opinions and gives guidance for agency officials on how to operate during a continuing resolution. Although often, it’s somewhat straightforward in the sense that the amount of money that an agency gets will be similar to what it has the prior year, there are a lot of nuances, and there can be exceptions. And so it’s an important source of guidance for agency officials to look at during a CR.

Tom Temin: And in this most recent report, anticipating a CR again, coming in just a few weeks, you have looked at three agencies that seem to manage wealth through CRs. And which ones were those?

Jeff Arkin: We looked at, like you said, three: the Department of Agriculture and in particular its rural Rental Assistance Program, which provides rental subsidies to eligible recipients; the Department of Education grant program for predominantly Black institutions of higher education; and then the Department of Health and Human Services’ Low Income Home Energy Assistance Program, which provides states tribes and territories with grants to operate Home Energy Assistance Programs for low income households.

Tom Temin: These are agencies then the have a, what you might call a retail component, in that they affect directly taxpayers.

Jeff Arkin: Exactly. We wanted to look at agencies and the programs that serve serve taxpayers serve the American people. We have looked at continuing resolutions in the past strictly from an agency focus and we wanted to go and look and see what the effects are on recipients and then how do recipients manage during continuing resolutions.

Tom Temin: We’re speaking with Jeff Arkin, he’s director of Strategic Issues at the Government Accountability Office. And what did these agencies in general tell you are the challenges and how do they get through them?

Jeff Arkin: A main challenge that we hear is that they have to spend time planning and preparing for a potential shutdown. Even though shutdowns have been fairly infrequent, they can happen. And when that does happen, not everything at the agency grinds to a halt, but they have to make decisions about legally which operations can continue and which can’t. And that takes some planning and it may vary from year to year. So they’re spending time I’m on that rather than focusing on their activities that serve American taxpayers. And it can also cause delays and a number of things. So for example, hiring or contracting decisions, things that you really either can’t do or would be imprudent to do during a period where you don’t know what your final budget is going to be for the year. And that can affect the services that these agencies and programs provide as well.

Tom Temin: Yes, I imagine it would cause them to be maybe a little bit trigger shy with respect to signing up people and so forth, simply because they don’t know what their appropriations will be. And as we all know, you can’t spend money that’s not appropriated.

Jeff Arkin: Exactly, exactly. And you’ll see that from the recipient standpoint as well. They have to plan their spending for the year. If you’re a grant recipient, it’s hard to know exactly how much to spend, if you don’t know how much you’re gonna get for things like higher education grants or low income housing subsidies.

Tom Temin: What are some good strategies, then what did these agencies do that got them through this, you could call it a crisis, except that it’s just a common one?

Jeff Arkin: Yeah. And I think that’s one of the features given that it has become fairly common. Agencies now have experienced with continuing resolutions, and they’re able to plan for them. So they can plan their spending, thinking about spending in later parts of the year, when it’s maybe less likely that there’ll be a continuing resolution, delaying things like hiring decisions and having sort of a strategic approach to how they’re going to spend, how they’re going to contract, how they’re going to hire. They’ve also worked on prioritizing spending during a continuing resolution. And so identifying which are the activities that are most critical for them to undertake and focus on while they’re in a period before they know what their final budget for the year is going to be.

Tom Temin: This sounds like a situation where the political leadership at various agencies who have not been there, maybe through the last one, and the one before that, and the one before that should really find counseling from their career, people who have maybe some experience here.

Jeff Arkin: Yeah, exactly. In the offices, the Chief Financial Officer offices and budget offices within these agencies, again, by now do have a lot of experience with continuing resolutions. There are a lot of nuances and how they work. And so again, GAO has a lot of guidance out there on how to do that, because the main thing that you don’t want to run into is any sort of what we call Antideficiency Act violation where you’re spending money that you don’t have or you’re spending money at a rate that goes above what it should be under a continuing resolution. And that’s what agencies are really trying to avoid.

Tom Temin: Sure, only Congress can print money, everyone else goes to jail.

Jeff Arkin: Right.

Tom Temin: Jeff Arkin is director of Strategic Issues at the Government Accountability Office. Thanks so much for joining me.

Jeff Arkin: Thanks for having me, Tom. Take care.

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