Pay, Furloughs, Pensions as Political Poker Chips

Continuing Resolutions, originally intended to be an emergency congressional stopgap procedure, have become the norm in Washington. And that is causing problems ranging from weapons systems in Defense and projects in NASA, to possible furloughs at the Justice Department and continuation of dead-men-walking programs in a number of agencies.

CRs are inside baseball (or in this case Inside the Beltway) terms with little meaning to the average American. But they have gone from being a legislative tool (and sometimes political arm-twister device) to something that impacts most Americans.

Originally intended as an emergency, temporary device, the CRs (at the hands of both political parties) gradually became a way of life. A way to permit politicians to play a game of political chicken with each other using federal agencies, programs and dollars as the vehicles. Fun for elected officials, apparently. Confusing and not so useful (sometimes downright harmful) for taxpayers who are too busy to play such games in their own lives and careers.

When Republicans briefly controlled Congress in the 90s (after 40 years of Democratic domination), the stunned Democratic minority bitterly complained about the new GOP leadership’s failure of the majority to pass budget and appropriations bills. Increasingly, government was run on CRs. The newly-empowered Republicans, who seemed to be equally stunned that they were suddenly in the driver’s seat, got a reputation -deserved or not – as being mean-spirited and arrogant. Even for Congress.


The result of standoffs between the White House and Republican-run Congress were rare, prolonged government shutdowns.

But when Democrats resumed control, they wound up doing the same thing. That is: mostly nothing. They too failed to approve all or most agency budgets, meaning agencies had to operate on CRs which limited their spending to the previous year, which had limited their spending to the year before that. And so on. Sort of a legal back-to-the-future approach.

The requirements of the CR may be forcing Defense to continue with weapons systems it would like to stop or scale back. Operating on budgets which (thanks to CR after CR) are unrealistic is said to be causing problems, and paralysis, in many operations. Some agencies complained that they can’t move ahead with new requirements imposed on them by Congress without, possibly, resorting to furloughs in addition to the 10-day furlough (equivalent to a pay cut on already frozen salaries) being pushed by House Republicans. That’s one of many federal operations that are being used as poker chips.

The Federal Times this week quoted Securities and Exchange Commission chairman Mary Schapiro as saying the uncertainties of the CR meant “we need to ask ourselves if we want our market analysts to continue to use decades-old technology to recreate market events or to monitor trading that occurs at the speed of light.”

Insiders at various agencies say similar problems ranging from decisions about badly needed new high tech, replacement of obsolete systems and hiring and furlough considerations are the result of the long-running CR which is now due to expire March 4.

So what does government by CR mean to you and your agency? And the services you are required by law to provide? Let us know!

Earlier this week Federal Times editor Steve Watkins and senior correspondent Steve Losey talked about the wide-spread and deep impact of CRs on federal agencies on our Your Turn with Mike Causey radio show. To hear what they had to say about CRs, furloughs, buyouts, click here.

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Nearly Useless Factoid
by Suzanne Kubota

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