Every time Washington confronts one of the imminent fiscal crises that seem to be normal operating procedure these days, my mind flashes back to an absurdist scene in the Saturday Night Live spinoff “Wayne’s World 2.”
When Wayne and his sidekick Garth happen upon a group of men hauling watermelons and chicken crates, they speculate that they’ve wandered into an outdoor market. On the contrary, the laborers inform them, their job is simply to stack their goods in one spot, then move them a few minutes later.
“You’ve got to wonder if this is gonna pay off later on,” Wayne says.
A similar scene is playing out in government offices across the country as Congress allows the sequester – a series of budget cuts that will axe 7.5 percent from the Department of Defense and 8.4 percent from some non-defense programs this year – to take effect. When a budgetary shock like this takes effect, federal agencies must spend time figuring out how to minimize the impact. Who gets furloughed? How do we cover their duties when they’re gone? The list goes on.
I experienced this firsthand when Congress walked to the brink of a government shutdown in 2011. At the federal agency where I worked at the time, countless hours were wasted planning for a shutdown that never happened. Projects were put on hold and overtime hours were logged to prepare for the worst. When the crisis was resolved a few hours before the deadline, it became apparent that we’d spent the last few weeks doing the white-collar equivalent of stacking watermelons and chicken crates.
Exercises like this would be fairly benign if the only casualty was the social schedule of government employees. But in reality, the impact is much deeper.
While many people understand that the sequester will take a sizeable bite out of economic growth, fewer see the costs that are racked up simply because government agencies can’t do their jobs when they’re worried about how to deal with Congressional dysfunction. Even though Congress averted the government shutdown in 2011, and even though the same may happen with the sequester, there is a price to be paid in efficiency and good government.
Philip Joyce, a professor at the University of Maryland School of Public Policy, lays out these costs in a report published last year. He finds that federal agencies have experienced disruptions and uncertainty in their budgets with increasing frequency in the last two decades.
The result is a government that is chronically unable to plan ahead. Instead, it must rely on expensive contingency plans. For example, Joyce reports, a federal agency worried about uncertainty might sign a series of one-month contracts instead of a single annual contract, even though the extra work creates higher overhead costs. Or maintenance of a Navy ship might be put off, shortening the vessel’s lifespan and bloating budgetary needs in the long run. This approach protects a federal agency in the case of a massive shutdown, but also wastes precious taxpayer dollars that could otherwise be spent on something beneficial.
The issue touches the integrity of our government, too. Government employees are a favorite scapegoat in some circles, but in reality, it is in the national interest to have a smart, talented workforce. Many government workers are overworked and underpaid, and frequent hiring freezes, pay cuts, and furloughs will only make jobs in lobbying shops or private industry more desirable. It makes little sense to tilt the scales further in favor of Washington’s notorious revolving door, yet that is what Congress does every time it manufactures a budget crunch.