A Non-Political Look at Disruption of Fiscal Law

I will try my best to make this post non-political. One of my degrees is in Journalism, from back in the “Lou Grant” days when journalism was strictly about the facts and opinions were on page 2 of the newspaper or at the end of the TV news hour in the editorial section where they “belonged,” back when sensationalism was a no-no, back when the news was the news and not fake or slanted or butchered or marketed, back around the time 24-hour news launched for the first time and disrupted the industry so that news had to be created or reiterated ad nauseam or laced with fillers to satisfy sponsors and make their investments worth a repeat. One of my journalism professors told us we as journalists should never under any circumstances make ourselves and our opinions and what other media was saying part of our reporting, ever. We weren’t the news– the news was the news. Tell the facts and let the people make up their minds. Other than C-SPAN, I can’t find objectivity anywhere in the news, no matter how earnest some are.

Yes, there really was such a time of objectivity and non-sensationalism. A lifetime ago.

My stomach churns enough at the polarity in our country, and I don’t want to add to that, but there are some things I’m watching closely from a change agent point of view.

We as innovators talk a lot about disruption, usually of industries — Acquisition, music, publishing, anything tech. We don’t usually talk about disruption of the Government itself as an industry. I am 100% for improvement and overhauls and whatever it takes to make things better, but there are some long-time structures being turned on their heads and I’m queasy about it, mainly because a better replacement isn’t in place yet and we seem to be focusing too much on short-term wins. For as much of a rebel as I can be, I’m not letting go of some old structures very quickly.

Probably because I was a Contracting Officer for a long, long time, and I have over 30 years of having fiscal law drilled into my head.

Maybe this is how Acquisition’s Frozen Middle managers feel when they see me walk in. Hmmm.

Here’s what I’m watching, both objectively and subjectively, and it makes me squirm and I would think make every Contracting Officer a little uncomfortable because it’s so contrary to how we’ve lived our careers. I’m tired of yelling, “You can’t do that!” at the TV. Non-Contracting folks may not get it, but it’s like fingernails on a chalkboard…if you remember chalkboards.

Anti-Deficiency Act Violations

We have people working without being paid. I’m talking specifically about Feds, but I suspect some Contractor employees are, too. I wouldn’t be surprised. Contractors often have to hold together a team and the work may not be easily delayed or suspended.

I have no idea if anyone working or furloughed will be paid whenever the shutdown is over, but a few months ago, I would have said, “Of course, they’ll be paid. If the Government receives a service, then Government legally must pay for it, even if that means ratification and a lot of paperwork and scrambling to find funding.” That’s been the practice I have seen for my entire career. I’ve quoted those words more than once to Contractors and Contract Specialists. As applied to a Federal employee or Contractor employees working when they weren’t legally supposed to.

Now? I have no idea. I’m not sure if the rules we’ve followed still apply. I’ve never questioned fiscal law before. Never had to. The ground feels shaky.

I used to sit my program managers down at Kick-off meetings on new contracts and have everyone take out their credit card to illustrate a point. Then I’d tell them that if they encouraged, cajoled, begged, fill-in-the-blank-with-a-verb the Contractor to work when we didn’t have funding or the right kind of funding, I’d need that 16-digit number for my long line account in Section G of the contract. With a single exception, it worked. Point made, when it was their own money. I think I’ve now lost the threat behind that exercise.

We have people volunteering, even picking up trash and trying to keep the skeleton crews limping along, which is kind of them, but accepting volunteer services is another slippery area, not allowed in most cases I’ve seen. (There are a couple of weird exceptions but you need to read the prescriptive language.) Violations include employees working for free out of patriotism or love of their missions. I lived under the rule that it was against statute to work for free and that it was not legal for my employees to work for free or for me as a supervisor to allow it, even if I looked the other way. Yeah, it happened in crunch times, and God knows, I did it way too much myself just to get the mission done, but in the long run, it leads to burnout and carelessness and in furloughs, the additional stress leads to unhappy employees who will look for better opportunities and/or more security elsewhere. You can run on empty only so long.

Mis-Appropriation of Funds

Yes, this fits in with ADA violations, but I’ve chosen to look at it separately. There are 3 things you can’t undo as a Contracting Officer–safety, security, and ADA violations, and that includes not just the absence of funds but also using money in ways you shouldn’t. Meaning, in a way Congress has not said you can. I’ve seen several Contracting Officers nearly lose their warrants over inadvertently putting the wrong color of money on contract or interpreting the work in a way that the funding was questioned by Policy or Legal. I’m personally in the camp of “let’s do away with the color of money” because there are too many times we have plenty of one kind of funds and not enough of another and a few wording changes to the requirements documents makes it all perfectly legal or you take a pause for the funds to be reprogrammed. But my personal feelings on “disrupting” appropriations are usually in regard to very specific situations where the scope of the work is not too far off from the purpose of the funds. We are out of my comfort range now.

Much of the news leaves me sad, angry, and yearning for resolution, and there’s more that concerns me than just ADA and appropriations, but these two areas are probably the biggest as a former Contracting Officer. These used to have easy answers that I could trust to be true.

Now? I don’t know.

Are we doing away with fiscal law? What replaces it? What are the new rules? I don’t know.

What I do know is that whatever happens in the next few days…or weeks, or (gulp) years…will either rewrite how we treat fiscal law or reinforce it.

c 2019 Lorna Tedder

Lorna Tedder


  • Rapid Acquisition Consultant
  • Recently retired Contracting Officer, unlimited AFMC warrant 1991-2018
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