Maroons not Baboons
Contrary to popular belief, a troop of baboons is not called a congress. Their Infraorder relatives, the orangutans, however are. Orangutans in a group are called a congress. But this is not a post about that kind of congress. It’s a post about the congress that baboons (and orangutans) should be embarrassed to share a name with. The Congress.
I have long made my mantra “Congress gives up efficiency for control.” Many an O-1 through O-3 (and one O-5) have gotten this lesson from me over the course of my time working for the government. Which leaves out the many DA civilians I have drummed this into. This is literally the only way I can go to sleep at night doing what I do for the Corps of Engineers. First, a little background on the statement.
Congress has the power of the purse by the Constitution. The only way American tax dollars can be spent is in accordance with the way Congress has directed. Period. Control established.
Now the methodology they use to appropriate and then fund expenditures is odd, and eclectic, but in the end it follows certain standards. In particular, there are many, many other laws Congress has passed to govern how, when, and why money can be disbursed. Now understand, I don’t mean that Congress is physically controlling each dollar that gets spent on each overpriced widget per se. There are controls put into place, training that is conducted to educate, and audits conducted to insure compliance. Checks and balances, rules and instructions, regulations and directives. Efficiency disrupted.
The myriad array of naive and new faces come into my line of work and immediately think of ways that we can save the federal government money. Then they proceed to get told why it won’t work. Why they can’t do it. And why the completely logical, excellent suggestion on how to proceed they have come up with is illegal and against Congressional direction. Efficiency given up for control.
But some days even my somewhat callous attitude about this is challenged. Today was one of those days. Next a little background on my situation. Different “colors” of money have different rules. Depending on the type it is valid for a period of time (1, 2, 3, or 5 years typically) and can be used for new obligations, then the money is expired for 5 years where it can be used to pay previous commitments and in-scope modifications, after which the funds cancel which means go away. Open, expired, canceled. Confusing because expired seems like canceled, so I say poof. Money goes poof. Clear, unambiguous.
So on my contract I have money that goes poof at the end of the fiscal year (FY). But before the end of the fiscal year our financial system will cut off and we will not be able to make a payment. It’s an annoying process that happens every month several days earlier than the end of the month. At the end of the FY, it moves up even further. Like a month. I cannot (and will not) pay for work that has not been done.
I have a project where the contractor cannot physically do the work needed in time to send me an invoice that I can pay before the money disappears. There is a long story as to why the contract was awarded so late that this is a problem but suffice it to say that ship has sailed, it is what it is. There is some additional work that will be paid for with money that has a different expiration date. Almost all of the work that needs to be paid will be done except for approximately $20,000.
Whammy number 1 is that if I don’t pay the money and it goes poof I get a bad mark next to my name as someone who has had something done that never happens. Then, because of pushing the contractor he will be able to finish it shortly after the date I can pay passes. Whammy number 2 is that he’ll send the invoice I can’t pay because I have to get new money. Even if we get the new money at the start of the new FY we will accrue interest on the invoice because of when it was sent. So I get dinged for paying interest because normally that means that I didn’t do my job and pay the invoice in a timely manner.
WARNING: DO NOT TRY TO MAKE SENSE OUT OF WHAT YOU ARE ABOUT TO READ! It does not sound logical, feasible, or possible. But I assure you it is not only legal it is the only way to accomplish what needs to happen.
In order to combat this double whammy of bad things, I have the opportunity to modify the contract using available money to pay the contractor to re-do the work he can’t get done. This way I can direct him to do the work out of sequence. I have close to $180,000 to use for this effort. Literally, I can pay up to 9 times the cost in order to have the contractor be less efficient and re-do what he can’t do to begin with. Meanwhile, both the Bauamt (the German construction agent we use for this contract) and I would end up getting more in accounts we use to pay for our own time. In particular, this will pay for the extra time I am spending trying to get the work done in a manner I am allowed to pay for it.
What will I end up doing? I don’t know yet. Probably taking the double whammy. We are the Corps of Engineers. We never fail to deliver. It may not look like it’s supposed to. It may not look like the customer wanted. It may not even look like we wanted it to. But we have never failed to deliver.
Congress gives up efficiency for control. They give up all sense of efficiency for their ability to control. Control is the only thing Congress does and they are good at that.