The President Proposes, but the Congress Disposes

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With the conclusion of 2022 funding legislation efforts, the process for 2023 is around the corner.

Earlier this week, I wrote an article summarizing IT and cyber security funding included in the FY 2022 appropriations bill, since signed into law by President Joe Biden. We will very soon turn our attention to the FY 2023 budget request, which the president usually submits to Congress shortly after the State of the Union address. That speech came somewhat later this year and hence the budget submission will come later as well. That delay will be extended a bit because the Office of Management and Budget will have to adjust the FY 2023 request to reflect what was actually approved for FY 2022. So in an election year, one in which the GOP hopes to gain control of one or both houses of the Congress, the president's budget—reflecting the policy priorities laid out in the SOTU—will arrive just about the time that appropriations hearings are normally held and Cabinet appointees are outlining and defending their budget submissions.

Given the existing delays, it is a safe bet to predict that come Oct. 1, 2022, the government will begin the year under a continuing resolution. AGAIN! One would have to go back to Bill Clinton's presidency and to FY 1996 to find the last time that the government began a fiscal year with all appropriations bills passed and signed. And if the GOP does succeed at the polls in November, it may be even more difficult to reach an agreement on funding than it was this year, when the White House and Democrats on Capitol Hill backed off a bit on increased funding for domestic programs and agreed to additional funding for defense and national intelligence pushed by Republicans.

But this isn't intended to be a budget update or forecast—not that it would take a genius to predict starting the fiscal year under a CR. It is to advocate that we pay as much attention to the work that Congress does in managing, overseeing and funding government as we do to the Executive Branch.

Let's start with funding and the old adage that serves as the title of this piece. I wouldn't suggest that anyone do what I did and read all 2,741 pages of the 2022 Consolidated Appropriations Act—the formal name of the omnibus appropriations bill just passed. But take my word for it, in addition to providing $1.5 trillion in funding for the year, the act provides very detailed guidance on when, how and where those funds can be used, and often what they can't be used for. In my previous article, I noted language that strengthened the role of the chief information officer or called for such good government practices as capital planning, investment review boards or enterprise architecture.

What I passed over briefly were numerous requirements for reports on program status, contractor performance, explanations for schedule slippages, even the qualifications of key executive positions and what might warrant a performance award fee to a contractor. In addition, this year the Democratic leadership—in the hopes of encouraging a greater willingness to compromise—restored the practice of earmarks within the act. I came across a number in my review.  Senator Mike Braun, R-Ind., trying without success to strip them from the bill, claimed they numbered in the thousands and took up 367 pages—weighed five pounds when printed—and showed "the swamp is rising again." So pay as much attention to what Congress approves as one does to what the White House requests. 

As we look at the leadership landscape in government management and the rules/practices that guide their activities, please note that many of those top jobs (e.g., CIO, CFO, etc.) and the work they do (e,g., strategic planning, performance reporting, IT scorecards, etc.) were the result of Hill legislation. Not only did a number of government reforms emerge from the Congress, many were initially opposed by the Executive Branch and the Office of Management and Budget.

Finally—and again please take my word for this—the appropriations bill giveth and the bill taketh away. Sprinkled throughout following sections on "funds are provided" are actions taken on unobligated balances—funds that were provided for a purpose that remain unspent at the end of the fiscal year. To budget analysts and appropriations committee staff, such dollars are often viewed as no longer needed, can be spent elsewhere, or can be used to offset funding increases. The sections for the Departments of State and Homeland Security included an especially large number of rescissions—or removals of unspent funds—some in the hundreds of millions and some in the thousands. I actually found one for $1.41—as in one dollar and 41 cents. I had to go back twice; I thought I had missed a footnote that would say "figures above are in millions." But that was not the case. While we debate budget reform, the "use it or lose it" mentality remains strong in the federal government. And so with major increases provided in this FY 2022 budget and now only six months left in the fiscal year, this should be an exciting time for program managers and contract staff.

For any other questions on budgeting and appropriations issues, I always answer with a line my mentor used when asked what the future will bring: "Worse than last year, but not as bad as next year."

Alan P. Balutis is a former distinguished fellow and senior director for North American Public Sector with Cisco Systems’ Business Solutions Group.