Editorial: Fixing the spree

We are two weeks into the new fiscal year, and nearly everyone is recovering from the annual end-of-year spending spree. So it is timely that there is a new report detailing the problems with end-of-year spending.

The report by the Treasury Inspector General for Tax Administration focuses on the Internal Revenue Service, but the findings ring true for most agencies: The annual year-end buying binge to deal with use’em or lose’em funds leads to problems. The report’s conclusions are hardly shocking: This is no way to run an organization.
But the issue is complex and steeped in years of government
bureaucracy.

Some will criticize the spending spree as wasteful — agencies buying things they don’t need because they don’t want to lose money. We almost wish it were that simple because that would be an easier problem to solve. Most people in the government information technology community recognize the spending spree as a necessary evil.

But we also know the spree is a problem and prone to contracting errors leading agencies to buy what is available rather then what has the best value. As TIGTA’s report states, the rush to spend must go through agencies’ procurement processes. When they are overburdened and there is a rush to get things done, people make mistakes. And, in fact, the IG report found that IRS procurement and acquisition people did make mistakes.

The reason for this is multifaceted, but most important, there is almost no effort to focus on any of the problems.

At the heart of the trouble is Congress’ inability to pass spending bills in a timely manner. Those delays mean agencies must shift spending patterns to essentially accomplish in nine months what they would normally do in 12. And the delays hamper agencies’ ability to start the procurement process earlier in the year.

Given that spending bills are not passed on time, lawmakers should provide agencies with a way to park spending. The most logical place would be accounts created for that purpose at the General Services Administration. Lawmakers would need to establish guidelines to avoid the constitutional issues of having one Congress allocate money for another Congress. But such rules seem possible, perhaps limiting such funds to a percentage of annual spending and restricting them to approved projects.

Agencies need some room to spend funds wisely. That would go a long way toward allowing them to manage more effectively.

We implore lawmakers, the Office of Management and Budget, and agencies to find a way to end the year-end spending spree. We all know it isn’t good for government or programs, so let’s find a solution.

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