Budget frustrations at small agencies could be blessing in disquise

The number of continuing resolutions passed over the last decade has frustrated leaders in many federal agencies, as they struggle to make important decisions about their budgets without any certainty. But Congress’ slowness in completing appropriations work also might have been a blessing in disguise to help these smaller agencies prepare for the potential negative effects sequestration could put on their workforce.

The slew of CRs has repeatedly forced small agencies to prepare worst-case-scenario plans, including furloughs and layoffs.

Raymond Limon, the former co-chairman of the Small Agency Human Resources Council, said “Over the past three years, it seems like agencies have had to develop those plans, and have them prepared to be implemented in the last two budget cycles. So in some ways, agencies are getting good, unfortunately, at planning for gaps in funding that” could adversely impact their workforces.

Congress passed the most recent CR last week, buying itself six months to work on appropriations bills for the new fiscal year beginning Oct. 1. But the temporary funding measure doesn’t do much, if anything, to allay longstanding frustrations of chief human capital officers and other agency leaders as they try to execute government programs.

Workforce cuts as last resort

Sequestration would force in across-the-board spending cuts worth $1.2 trillion over 10 years. Unless Congress steps in, the reductions in 2013 will total $109 billion.

A senior administration official said the White House had not prepared an analysis of the number of federal workers that could be furloughed because of sequestration.

“Clearly, if sequester were to occur, this would have a significant impact on the federal workforce,” the official said.

But Limon said he hopes for the best.

“I am a hopeless optimist. I am positive that [the lame-duck Congress] will advance the nation’s needs above their political desires and aims and do what’s best. We’ve come to these, if you will, showdowns in the past, and cooler heads have prevailed,” he said.

Limon said agencies are working to identify skeleton crews that could keep mission-essential functions in operation, in case they’re forced to furlough or lay off employees.

“I do feel like, the idea of necessity being the mother of invention, that we can stick to our statutory prerogatives of what we’re required to do and ensure that there’s a workforce in place to maintain that”, he said. And though “the services and the day-to-day responses back to the communities would certainly suffer, I think that, you know, [if] push comes to shove, we would be in a position to identify a core network of employees to continue the work and may have to furlough the remaining.”

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