BUDGET:

Congress' failure to pass spending bill creates chaos in agencies

As federal agencies enter their sixth month without Congress approving a long-term spending bill, some employees are digging into their own pockets for everything from a spiral-bound notebook to an airplane ticket.

Last week, Congress passed the fifth continuing resolution (CR) of this fiscal year, cutting about $6 billion from current spending. Lawmakers say a budget is forthcoming, but concern over a possible shutdown is palpable; 54 Republicans in the House voted against their own party's CR, with many claiming the cuts were not deep enough.

At U.S. EPA, employees say the uncertainty has translated to a decline in morale and a preoccupation with the possibility of staff cuts.

"I am seeing a lot of people frustrated with management and the Agency for not giving more information on what, if any, cuts will be coming and which programs will be impacted," said EPA scientist and union representative Edward Guster in an email. "A lot of people are fearful of being moved to another position, losing their job or not getting the training they need."

EPA officials have cause to be especially on edge. House Republicans have taken aim at the agency, with many hoping to resuscitate a long-term CR that passed the House last month and would cut EPA's budget by $3 billion. The same bill would cut $1 billion from the budget of the Department of Energy, which Republicans have criticized recently for slow stimulus spending and flawed oversight.

Some Republicans also hope to restrict the administration's authority over key environmental issues, making agencies' future missions even more unclear.

Last week, Rep. Jim Moran of Virginia, the senior Democrat on the House Appropriations subcommittee that oversees Interior Department and EPA funding, said the short-term budget process makes agencies' work "extremely difficult" (E&E Daily, March 14).

"If I were a program manager," Moran said, "I don't know how I would cope with the situation."

Spokesmen from EPA, DOE and Interior declined to comment on how the CR has affected their agencies, currently or in the past. DOE spokeswoman Katinka Podmaniczky said in a statement that the department "continues to work with both sides on Capitol Hill to fund the government and keep its vital services and functions operating."

But a 2009 report from the Government Accountability Office provides some insight on how such uncertainty can limit management flexibility and increase employees' workload.

Denise Fantone, a GAO director of strategic issues who worked on the report, said her agency has not studied the current situation. But the report studied data from 1999-2009 to come to some conclusions about the overall effect of continuing resolutions on government operations.

Each agency is affected differently, Fantone said in a recent interview. Regulatory agencies, for example, may collect funding from nongovernment sources and thus feel the effects of a short-term CR less.

But CRs can affect contracts and hiring significantly. Short-term federal budgets can mean short-term agency planning with officials eventually compelled to quickly obligate any remaining funds at the end of a fiscal year. Employees might also have to issue contracts for shorter periods of time, repeating parts of the bidding process under each CR.

Such planning also affects hiring and training, Fantone said.

"Everything gets delayed and pushed back," she said. "You could hire at the end of the year, but that may be out of cycle with training cycle. ... There were certain opportunities that were missed."

EPA employees

John O'Grady, EPA Region 5 president of the American Federation of Government Employees (AFGE) Council 238, said EPA has limited travel expenditures to 42 percent of the annual budget, causing employees to miss out on training opportunities.

One employee, he said, told him she would be paying her own way to a free training opportunity because she could not get her travel budget approved in time.

"The impact of this budget mess is that employees either miss out on free training that is of benefit to the government or the employees who need the training have to pay for the travel out of their own pocket in order to get the training," O'Grady said.

"While the training is not immediately mandatory for the employee, it is needed if they employee wants to advance in her profession and be on a level playing field with co-workers who have already received the training."

O'Grady said the CR's effects also have trickled down to mundane supplies. After he was told the agency could not afford to buy an 8.5-by-11-inch spiral notebook for air-enforcement inspections, he bought one himself. A handful of file folders, meanwhile, took more than a month to obtain, he said.

The lack of firm deadlines has also put research projects, regulation implementation and contracted jobs on hold, he said.

But the threat of job loss is what mainly haunts employees, some of whom experienced the government shutdown 15 years ago. Agency officials have been silent on their plans for that possibility, much to employees' chagrin.

"I have been getting questions on if employees can take on another job if they are furloughed, will they still have medical, etc.," Guster said, who is EPA Region 2 president of AFGE 238. "This time could be spent on their program work."

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