A Tough Month

A Tough Month
October 28, 2013

We have become used to a certain degree of brinkmanship in the process to determine the budgets for the United States government, but this year was even more dramatic than usual.

The underlying feature of the process is that, in principle, more than 10 individual appropriations bills must become law each year to enable government spending. In recent years, it has become traditional to replace the detailed legislation with stop-gap legislation, which replaces a detailed reassessment with spending based on the pre-existing legislations. This technique has several disadvantages. In particular, the level at which the constraints are applied means that the new legislation does not follow project funding profiles or other planned adjustments.  In addition, it does not usually accommodate the start of new projects.

Often, the continuing resolution legislation is enacted at the last moment before the previous legislation expires. The duration for which the continuing resolution applies can vary from a few weeks to several months, or even a full year.

So, a continuing resolution is not ideal.

This year, we also found out that the alternative can be worse. This year, no legislative action was agreed upon before the previous legislation expired at midnight on Sept. 30. At that point, whether a particular government agency or entity continued to operate or closed down depended on the appropriated funds from the previous year that had not yet been spent (carryover funds). The official term for this status is that there is a lapse of funding.

The Department of Energy had some carryover, both in its funding for programs and in its funding for the federal salaries. At Jefferson Lab, this was also true, or at least partially so, and we had a little reserve. This reserve resulted in part from restrictions in expenditures during the second half of FY13. The largest portion was in our nuclear physics base funding, and under the rules of the lapse, we were allowed to treat these funds as one bucket. Normally, there are several buckets, and we are not allowed to move money from one to another. These rules allowed us to contemplate staying open for a few weeks, provided we severely constrained spending. Had we not had this flexibility, the situation would have been much different, despite the important positive impact of the mandated use of vacation in the last months of FY13.

The situation for our other large source of funds, the 12 GeV Upgrade Project, was quite different. As the end of the financial year approached, it was realized, as planned, that we would have no money for salaries without an appropriation. So, the project first suspended purchases, then started in a measured way to roll back its commitments to “de-obligate” money. There are two impacts that result from this approach. On the one hand, the inability to make short-term purchases can soon affect short-term progress, and, perhaps more importantly, the de-obligations can send a very negative message to vendors. There is the risk that vendors will switch their efforts to contracts with an apparently more reliable intent.

During the lapse in funding, there is a sort of schizophrenia. There is the desire to proceed as effectively as possible with the program. But any appearance of profligate spending when parts of the government have furloughed all their workers is deemed undesirable. As is often the case, travel was seen as a luxury and so received particular direction. Of course, the logic of this approach, especially in a field in which results not communicated are results that might as well not exist, is questionable. Nevertheless, we worried about the attitude we were expected to take to the support of a thousand nuclear physicists “phrolicking by the phountains” in Newport News City Center for the APS-DNP Fall Meeting October 23-26.

For most of us, not achieving a short-term continuing resolution before Oct. 1 was a shock. The second shock was that it did not end within a couple of days. The “debt ceiling” “scheduled for Oct. 17 gradually became important. It was clear that some labs had sufficient carryover to stay open past this date, perhaps into November. Others were already facing closure or partial closure after a couple of weeks. With great difficulty and with further support from the Office of Nuclear Physics, we could think about staying open to the end of October. A complication was that the funding for the DOE federal salaries would last only to Oct. 25, and when the lapse ended, it was still not resolved whether the labs could stay open with skeleton federal oversight.

As things played out, relief came 'round on Oct. 16. A continuing resolution through Jan. 15, 2014, was the result.

For management, one of the stressful aspects of this exercise was the uncertainty. We can only imagine that for most of our employees, that stress was amplified. We had to obtain approval for any communication to staff, and, in particular, we were enjoined from making public any projection as to when we would need to close; so communications sometimes were not crisp. We, therefore, appreciate the efforts that all our colleagues put into maintaining effective productivity, with due regard for safety, during this trying period. It was a tough month, and one we hope not to replay.