Agency budget officials must hurry up and wait

Although agencies are used to working under continuing resolutions, it doesn't get any easier, Agri- culture CIO Scott Charbo says.

Olivier Douliery

After waiting many months for Congress to pass temporary spending measures to keep the government running last fall, the Agriculture Department has rushed to spend $120 million on projects under its Common Computing Environment before fiscal 2004 ends this week.

For next year, CIO Scott Charbo said he has no idea how much the department will get.

But he does know whatever funding Congress approves for the agencywide project to replace thousands of computers and other IT equipment, his acquisition personnel likely will be under the gun to spend it all before the end of the year'whether the money comes next month or not before February.

That is the challenge for many agencies as lawmakers once again battle over the federal budget.

The House, as of late last week, was pre- paring the first of what likely will be several continuing resolutions to let agencies re-main in operation at 2004 spending levels while lawmakers wrap up fiscal 2005 appropriations bills.

Over the last four years, Congress has passed 48 continuing resolutions.

'At this point, working under a continuing resolution is becoming somewhat routine, so you have to plan for it,' Charbo said. 'It does impact our work because you have to manage how you spend your money better because you don't know what level of funding you will receive, so you don't want to overspend.'

So far, President Bush has signed only the Defense Department's 2005 appropriations bill into law. Both houses passed the Homeland Security Department bill and were preparing to go to conference to iron out differences at press time.

The only other bill the Senate has passed is the Military Construction bill. It is still debating 10 other appropriations bills.

The House has passed all spending bills except the Transportation, Treasury and independent agencies, and the Veterans Affairs and Housing and Urban Development bills.

As agencies wait for their 2005 funding, they will work on the projects for which they made purchases in 2004.

Agriculture completed four large procurements, for satellite imagery services, geographic information services, desktop PCs and a Microsoft Exchange e-mail system since Congress passed the consolidated appropriations bills in January.

Tom Luedtke, NASA's assistant administrator for procurement, said the uncertainty of the budget process is the hardest part of procurement for agency managers.

'Typically, [under a continuing resolution] we get a percentage of what we are expected to get, but that funds ongoing operational support,' he said. 'The squeeze comes out of the programs, especially new programs.'

Experts said the distraction of the No- vember general election and the slow progress lawmakers have made so far make it unlikely that agencies will receive their 2005 budgets before December.

The length of any continuing resolutions will depend on whether Congress comes back for a post-election session, said Stan Collender, managing director and budget expert in the Washington office of Financial Dynamics Business Communications, a communications consultancy based in London.

'The key will be what happens during the election,' he said. 'If the Democrats take one house or the presidency, Congress may want to get stuff passed as soon as possible after the election. If the Republicans retain control, they may wait until February and take care of the budget with their majority in place.

Collender said agencies may end up getting more in 2005 because the political pressure to keep spending down will diminish after the election.

E-gov crackdown

Although some domestic programs may see more money, Congress is clamping down on e-government funding.

Both the House and Senate versions of the Transportation, Treasury and independent agencies bill deny the administration's request to use the Federal Supply Service surplus for all e-government projects.

'It was walking-around money for the Office of Management and Budget, and we don't do that,' said a House appropriations committee staff member.

The Senate approved only $3 million for the E-Government Fund, $2 million less than the president's request. Members did approve OMB's request to use some of the money in the fund as incentive awards for agency project management teams.

The House, which authorized $5 million for the fund, did not include a similar provision.

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