As I write this column on the last day of the federal government fiscal year, our major news outlets are running all the dramatic live updates about whether a budget deal can be cut before midnight to avert a government shutdown.
I don’t even care anymore.
But Merritt! Nearly 45,000 jobs—by far the largest share by far—in New Mexico are dependent on federal funding! What happens to them? You’re a defense contractor! What happens to you?
Nothing happens. The Office of Management and Budget (OMB) tells government agencies to start preparing for furloughs. Contractors are told to stand by for stop work orders. Usually, just at the wire, a budget isn’t passed but stopgap funding in form of continuing resolutions (CRs) are authorized to keep the government running for a short period of time until the budget is finalized.
The complete inability of Congress to even try to pass a budget on time is one of the biggest culprits in our government’s inefficiency. But you see, government agencies are used to this. Between 1998 and 2019, Congress passed 117 CRs.
So government agencies know that the budget requests they send to Congress are not going to show up on October 1. And they build workaround solutions. Some of that comes in the form of the “use it or lose it” mentality with federal dollars: Any unspent funds are absolutely hoarded and programmed into the next year because who knows when Congress is going to fund the next year? It also ensures every year’s budget request has these year-end rainy funds built in because everyone knows they are going to need it.
Some workarounds come in the form of the more expensive cost-reimbursable contracts currently in vogue for everything—from services to warships. You see, if a major project is delayed because the federal budget is delayed, and the contract is firm-fixed-price, the contractor eats the cost for any delays.
A cost-reimbursable contract means the government is liable for all costs incurred by the contractor, inevitably putting the burden of cost risk back on the government. The never-ending round of CRs over the last two decades has resulted in a corresponding hike in cost-reimbursable contracts.
I know, I know. There have been three shutdowns in the last decade. But even then, it wasn’t the entire government, less than half of all government employees were furloughed and everyone got back pay. The longest shutdown in American history—the 35-day border wall hissy fit over the winter holidays of 2018-2019—did not close down the government entirely. One of my five Department of Defense contracts was deemed “non-essential” for three days, two of which occurred over a weekend. I don’t think it affected my billing.
Huzzah! From the time I sat down at my keyboard, to my closing paragraph, in a “bipartisan victory,” both the House and the Senate passed a bill to fund the government through December 3. Just one more continuing resolution. And of course neither chamber has even touched the debt ceiling, which is a larger and more complex issue.
I’m not saying shutdowns are harmless. They’re political brinkmanship of the most juvenile order. And the more Congress goes to the brink, shutdown or not, the more it feeds the cynicism of voters. Either we don’t need government agencies, or we don’t need Congress. Given that Congress hasn’t managed to pass a budget on time in 30 years, I am going to go with the latter. Winter, followed by midterm primaries, is coming.
Merritt Hamilton Allen is a PR executive and former Navy officer. She appears regularly as a panelist on NM PBS and is a frequent guest on News Radio KKOB. She lives amicably with her Democratic husband and Republican mother north of I-40 where they run two head of dog, and two of cat. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.