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Budget impasse leaves agencies in limbo

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This is America, on the installment plan.

For 177 days now, the longest period in 14 years, the U.S. government has operated without a budget. Congress is mired in a spending fight, with Democrats and Republicans arguing over what to cut from the budget and by how much. Each party sees its soul at stake.

Absent an agreement to fund the government until the end of the fiscal year in September, Congress has passed six short-term stopgap measures, one after another. The current one lasts until April 8.

The short-term extensions have kept the lights on. But the uncertainty over whether the two sides will eventually reach a long-term budget deal has done its own damage, producing waste and inefficiency as a massive federal bureaucracy tries to live paycheck to paycheck.

Some agencies have had to halt new projects in midstream, because the funds they expected have not arrived. In California, there is a new federal prison with 160 staff and no inmates. The government has no money to open it.

In other cases, managers have become more stingy with the money they still have — worried that their funding might stop in a shutdown or shrink when a new budget is passed.

Confusion over the budget has also let unwanted projects live on.

The government is spending $1.4 million a day on a moon rocket that NASA has already canceled. With the budget in disarray, nobody has turned off the spigot.

In Washington, federal workers worry that their jobs will end, lose sleep and fight with their spouses about money. This unease strikes at two pillars of their identity: that their work is steady, and that it is valued by their leaders and their country.

Republicans who urge deep cuts acknowledge that they will be painful for those who will lose their jobs or see their agencies pared down, but they argue that there are larger things at stake, such as bringing down the nation’s enormous debt.

“People are wanting more cuts, not fewer cuts. They don’t believe that we maybe went far enough,” even with deep reductions to the budget proposed so far, said Rep. Bill Huizenga (R-Mich.), one of 87 GOP freshmen elected last fall on promises to rein in federal spending.

Huizenga said it is crucial to come out of this budget fight with substantial cuts. “If we can’t do what we say we’re going to do on some of these small things, how are they going to trust us?”

At this point, federal agencies are braced for the coming cuts. The hard part is the waiting while Congress tries to make up its mind. As Republicans and Democrats dither, official Washington is stuck in limbo, moving ahead, awkwardly, a few weeks at a time.

‘We’re burning money’

It had taken a month and a half to crack open the Navy ship Thunderbolt and expose its bones. The MHI shipyard in Norfolk had a contract to replace buckled frame members at the core of the 170-foot ship.

Then, in February, the shipyard got a new order.

“Stick it back together again,” said Michael Torrech, the president of the holding company that owns the shipyard.

The Thunderbolt is one of 29 ships whose repair and maintenance contracts have been scrapped. The Navy expected new funding for these repairs in the 2011 budget; since the stopgaps have continued its budget at 2010 levels, the money hasn’t come.

Workers at the Norfolk shipyard partially reassembled the Thunderbolt. But they’re shipping much of its guts back in boxes: It could take weeks, and a lot of money, if the Navy wants to put it back in working order.

The budget impasse hasn’t shut down the government — at least not yet. But it has slowed down or stopped a lot of its parts.

The Marine Corps deferred construction of 13 housing barracks. Army officials have scrapped plans to add safety features to war-damaged Humvees.

Each decision could cost extra in the long term. The government will need extra man-hours to re-bid canceled contracts, extra work to restart canceled jobs.

“Every day the CR goes on, we’re burning money,” said Thomas Mullins, a deputy assistant secretary of the Army. He meant the “continuing resolution”: the official term for the stopgap budget measures.

Already, about 1,000 Army employees and contractors across the country have been laid off, and Mullins expects many more will follow.

“Say you have a million-dollar contract. In the middle, the government says, ‘We have to take back some of the money,’ ” said Edward Bersoff, chairman of McLean-basedATS Corp., which builds software for weapons systems. “Or you’ve ramped up your staff, and they say, ‘We don’t want all that work to be done.’ ”

“You have to let people go,” Bersoff said. His company already has.

Moving on — or not

Sometimes, the problem is not what’s stopping in the federal government — but what won’t stop.

Last year, the White House and Congress agreed to scrap a George W. Bush-era space program known as Constellation. But, in the world of continuing resolutions, Constellation still lives.

In Huntsville, Ala., workers are still building a rocket for the Constellation program. At the Kennedy Space Center in Cape Canaveral, Fla., NASA workers are still readying its launch pad.

The reason: In 2010, Sen. Richard Shelby (R-Ala.) inserted language into the budget that provided funding for the project. It has reappeared in all six of this year’s stopgaps. NASA says it’s diverting some of the funding to a Mars program it does want.

Elsewhere, the biggest problem with budget limbo is what can’t start. In Mendota, Calif., those 160 prison staff have nothing to do but stretch out training and “shadow” guards at other prisons. The government can’t find the $49 million it needs to bring in prisoners.

The guards “try to keep as busy as possible,” said Timothy DeBolt, an official with the officers’ union. “But it makes for very long days when there’s nothing to do.”

Frozen in time

In the 1800s, when the Senate missed a midnight deadline for finishing its budget, it would simply summon a doorkeeper. His job: to turn back time.

“They would get him to go up with a broom handle and turn the clock back, to give them a few extra hours,” said Senate historian Don Ritchie.

Today, a continuing resolution works the same magic: It makes a deadline not a deadline.

This time around, the first one was approved Sept. 30, as a new fiscal year dawned without an official budget. Then came another, and another, and another.

And still, the budget fight drags on. The Republican-controlled House passed a budget that reduced spending by $61 billion — including cuts to Planned Parenthood, public broadcasting and the Environmental Protection Agency. Senate Democrats have proclaimed that a non-starter.

But any compromise could alienate some of the GOP’s 87 freshmen: Some said that when they went home this week, constituents urged them to keep up the budget brinkmanship.

“They say: ‘Shut it down. Shut it down,’ ” said Rep. Joe Walsh (R-Ill.), meaning the government. “I think the American people are ahead of us on this. And they’re prepared for it.”

Feeling the pinch

As the government continues to operate with an expiration date shorter than yogurt, federal workers are husbanding what resources they still have.

At the Surface Transportation Board, a small agency that regulates railroads, the manager in charge of supplies spent $1,800 on photocopier paper in a single week this month, fearful he would not be able to buy more if the government shut down.

Federal City Caterers in the District, which provides food for many official functions, is also feeling the pinch. At the government events they cater, hot omelet stations are out; pre-made quiches are in.

“If someone says it’s a continental breakfast, we used to have a hot sandwich,” said Deborah Allen, an owner of the company. “Now, you just do the ‘continental’ part.”

Karen Osterle, a psychotherapist practicing in Dupont Circle, recently counseled a government contractor and his wife who’d come in because, among other things, they were fighting over job worries. “Attend to each other’s fear,” she said she told them.

Local health professionals said that similar tension is rippling through most of their federal-worker patients. There are exceptions, though: At least one federal employee Osterle treats seems not to suffer from the same stress.

He works for Congress.

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