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Notes from a nearly furloughed federal employee

April 14, 2011

Because I work for the federal government, I was almost furloughed Friday. Like most of us employed in the Borg hive, I was hoping the furlough would happen, doggone it. Who doesn’t want a few days off, especially when they’re paid days off?

Those TV sob stories last week about the hardships we would endure if we stopped getting paychecks were all nonsense – in every previous furlough, federal employees were paid retroactively for the time they didn’t work.

I think that’s called paid vacation out there in the real world, right?

This would have been “bonus” paid vacation not charged against our regular accumulated vacation hours… and trust me, some of us have beaucoup vacation hours stored up. Federal employees are like squirrels when it comes to storing hours. When people retire from the federal government they generally keep getting paychecks for months while they use up the comp time, sick time, and vacation time they’ve hoarded.

That “paid” part of the furlough is not usually mentioned in mainstream news reports. In 1995, when Bill Clinton was disagreeing with Republicans in Congress, they furloughed “non-essential” federal employees for 21 days. Then the bureaucrats came back for a week and got paid for four weeks. Nice. That’s the kind of thing we were hoping for this time. A month before that 21-day furlough there was a 5-day furlough, also paid retroactively. Altogether, people got paid for a whole month of sitting at home watching soap operas and taking long walks on the beach… and since federal employees accumulate benefits for every week of “work,” they actually accumulated additional paid vacation hours (and pension) while they were sitting at home on paid furlough.

“Hey, boss, I’m tuckered from my long furlough so I’m taking a vacation day.”

The Employee Furlough Scam is government at its best: spending money while doing nothing. You gotta love it if you’re a federal employee… not so much if you’re a taxpayer with a regular job.

Other parts of the government shutdown are equally stupid. The office where I work has a brand new temporary transfer employee who had to fly back to the East Coast, to her “home station,” all the while knowing that she would have to fly back to Nevada when the furlough ended. That’s approximately one thousand dollars wasted on plane tickets. She got here Monday, flew home Friday, and then flew back to Nevada the following Wednesday. And there were literally hundreds – maybe thousands – of those situations on Friday: people taking flights home to honor the “shutdown” knowing they would soon fly back to where they started. Remember, this shutdown never actually happened because the politicians made a last-minute deal to avoid it, yet federal employees were flying hither and thither on Friday just in case there was a shutdown.

Only government bureaucrats are capable of spending more money during a shutdown than they spend otherwise, and in this case, they managed to spend money on a shutdown that didn’t even happen. It’s almost magical in its stupidity.

On the positive side, Southwest, United, and American Airlines are probably dancing in their offices because of the extra revenue.

Government stupidity starts at the very top, with Congress, which is stupid on a regular basis but became extra-special stupid on January 3, 2007, when Nancy Pelosi became Speaker of the House, giving Democrats control of both halves of Congress for the first time in twelve years. Ever since then, Congress has been incompetent and irresponsible.

The first budget with Harry Reid and Nancy Pelosi leading the way was the fiscal year 2008 budget… they were seven months late with it. Instead of getting our allocations in October 2007, at the beginning of the year, we got them April 23, 2008.

The second budget they were supposed to pass, the 2009 budget, was ten months late. We got our budget allocation on July 23, 2009. Our deadline for large contracts is usually about July 31, so we had eight days to spend the money. By the time they passed that budget, Barack Obama was president and the economy was in ruins and everybody was in a froth to stimulate the economy with government spending, but Nancy and Harry were so delinquent with the budget that government agencies barely had a month to spend something like a trillion dollars. I remember that time with horror. Any decent patriotic American would have been horrified. We were shoveling money out the door so fast we had no idea whether it was being spent wisely or prudently.

For example, we were instructed by the new president to buy hybrid and high-mileage vehicles immediately, whether we needed them or not. Trouble is, such vehicles are small two-wheel-drive useless things – useless for any kind of field work anyway – so as soon as they started arriving the federal email system was clogged with desperate pleas from wildlife refuges and field stations begging other federal agencies to take the worthless things off their hands.

“Obama cars” they’re called. We got three identical white Impalas, one of which we immediately unloaded on a federal office in another city. The other two spend most of their time sitting in the parking lot out back.

Nancy and Harry’s third budget, for fiscal 2010, showed some improvement – it was only five months late – but then came fiscal year 2011, and they simply gave up pretending to try.

All last week Democrats were whining about the Republican budget for fiscal year 2011. Thing is, Republicans wouldn’t even be talking about the 2011 budget if the damn thing was passed last year when it was due... in other words, back when Democrats had overwhelming majorities in the House and the Senate and a Democrat sitting in the White House and could’ve passed any budget they wanted.

Why didn’t Democrats pass a budget last year when they were supposed to?

Here is the budget process schedule as it is supposed to work, using the current fiscal year, 2011, which goes from October 1, 2010, through September 30, 2011, as the example:
October-December 2008 – The process begins almost two years before the beginning of the year, with operating components of each federal agency developing budget requests to the agency. That far in the future they have no idea what they need, of course, so they concentrate on formulating semi-believable excuses for the largest possible amount of money. There are people who specialize in this. They go to school for it. They have fancy titles, but you can call them bullshit peddlers or con artists without sacrificing accuracy.

Spring of 2009 – The agencies start developing their “strategic plans,” which are designed, of course, to support and justify the bullshit requests submitted in step one.

June 2009 – The Office of Management and Budget (OMB) tells the agencies how to make their budget requests for 2011… in other words, what font to use, how many pages they should be, and where to send them. This is not rocket science, but I guarantee somebody at OMB is paid $150,000 a year to research and decide on the best font.

Summer 2009 – The agencies spend the summer having meetings and strategizing about how to sell their delusional budget desires to OMB. The trick is to find ways to make spending money sound like it will save money. It’s never true, but that doesn’t matter. OMB eats up that kind of stuff, because they know it sounds good when the president repeats it on TV.

September 2009 – The agencies send their official budget requests to the OMB with all their best tricks, excuses, and “money saving” ideas in bold italics to make sure they aren’t overlooked. Everything in the correct font, of course – no sense irritating the OMB font guy.

December 2009 – OMB gives them back, viciously marked up in red ink, many of the more ludicrous pipe dreams crossed out, and with lots of sticky notes attached saying things like, “Sorry, cannot afford this,” and “No way!” and “What the hell are you smoking?” For two or three months the agencies whine and beg behind the scenes while OMB is typing up the President’s Budget Request to Congress. The OMB typists are not super speedy, so there’s plenty of time for whining and begging. Sometimes it even works.

1st Monday in February, 2010 – The President’s Budget Request to Congress is delivered no earlier than the first Monday in January and no later than the first Monday in February. (Nobody has ever been early, not the way OMB types.) For fiscal 2011, President Obama submitted his budget request on Monday, February 1, 2010, exactly on time. It was delivered to Congress in two wheelbarrows pushed through a secret tunnel by Joe Biden and Hillary Clinton… okay, not really, but it is a fairly hefty document, with lots of details. The House and Senate spend the next two months tearing the president’s budget to shreds, like hyena’s on a water buffalo carcass. They have every right, since by law it is Congress which appropriates money. The President’s Budget Request to Congress is merely a list of “suggestions” based on his theoretical experience as CEO of the executive branch.

April 15, 2010 – This is where the process started breaking down once Nancy and Harry were put in charge. Congress is supposed to pass a Budget Resolution by April 15. Unlike the President's budget, this is not very detailed, but rather a simple document stating how much the federal government is supposed to spend in each of 20 broad spending categories, along with a wild-ass guess about how much revenue the government will collect, over the next five years. Whatever they say is mostly fiction, so you wouldn’t think it would be difficult to meet the deadline.

October 1, 2010 – Finally, between the April 15 Budget Resolution and the beginning of the fiscal year, Congress must pass all the various appropriation bills which officially fund the approximately two thousand agencies of the federal government. If they don’t get this job done, then nobody knows what to do when October 1 arrives.
That’s how it’s supposed to work. Since January 3, 2007, when Democrats took control of Congress and started crapping all over the budget process, nobody ever knows what to do on October 1. Here it is, April 14, six months and two weeks into fiscal year 2011, and government agencies still have no idea how much money they have to spend or what the budget will look like. Nancy and Harry have been so utterly derelict in discharging their duties as congressional leaders that it’s borderline criminal.

That’s not hyperbole: the Congressional Budget Act of 1974 requires that Congress pass a Budget Resolution each year, so technically Nancy and Harry broke the law by shirking the job. Occasionally there are partisan reasons why Congress cannot pass a Budget Resolution, but last year was the first time ever that congressional leadership refused to even try.

When Republicans were taking heat last week for trying to be adults and pass a budget, they were doing work that Democrats didn’t do last year. When you look at things from that perspective, the question arises: why should Democrats have any say in the matter now?

And yesterday, when President Obama gave a speech about balancing the budget, just two months after submitting an official President’s Budget Request for fiscal 2012 that most emphatically does not balance the budget… same question: why should we listen to him now?

If you’re truly interested in balancing the budget, Mr. President, where have you been?

As for your spending plans… were you lying in February, or lying yesterday?

From Reno, Nevada, USA

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