- The Washington Times - Monday, September 23, 2013

Despite the deep budget sequester cuts that have tightened belts across the government, the Coast Guard is in a rush to empty its budget coffers — the annual fourth-quarter push for federal agencies to spend all of their money or risk smaller budgets the next year.

“The standards haven’t changed,” said Carlos Diaz, a Coast Guard spokesman. “We’ve got to spend our entire operational budget every year.”

But the traditional use-it-or-lose-it mentality is getting stricter scrutiny this year, with the cuts mandated by the sequesters having reduced budgets across most departments and agencies.

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Indeed, most of those contacted by The Washington Times said they are taking different approaches to spending in light of the belt-tightening.

The Marine Corps said it simply has less to lose because of the cuts, which have sliced $1.4 billion from the service’s budget this year. The Corps’ fiscal 2014 budget is expected to be short by more than $2 billion because of continued cuts.

“The Marine Corps continues to prudently spend every taxpayer dollar,” Capt. Tyler Balzer, a Marine Corps spokesman, said in a statement. “For a fraction of the DOD budget, we will continue to provide the nation its most capable force in readiness.”

Known as Christmas in July, the push to spend out budgets has been documented by government auditors for years. The philosophy is that if agencies return unspent money at the end of a fiscal year, Congress will decide it didn’t need all of it and will cut funding the next year.

So federal employees go into overdrive by buying office furniture, playground equipment, musical instruments and other items, according to audit reports.

Sen. Tom Coburn, Oklahoma Republican and one of the leading fiscal hawks on Capitol Hill, said that must not happen this year.

In a letter sent to the White House Office of Management and Budget on Sept. 10, Mr. Coburn urged the administration to keep tabs on things.

“The government and those employed by it will face significant fiscal challenges next year, and now is not the time for a federal spending extravaganza,” he wrote.

He asked to see every executive department or agency’s contracted options during the last quarter of fiscal 2013, unobligated balances as of Oct. 1, 2013, and fiscal 2013 unspent funds as of the same date.

“Agencies should make smart choices as they prepare for next year’s budgets,” Mr. Coburn wrote. “Any office, department or program scurrying to spend last-minute funds, while earlier in the year furloughing employees to produce savings, should be exposed for poorly managing its sequestered budget, and be subject to judicious oversight of their spending priorities.”

Pulling back

One agency where spend-it-or-lose-it practices had taken hold was the Internal Revenue Service, which was investigated for a conference in California that cost more than $4 million. When questioned at a June congressional hearing, Danny Werfel, the acting IRS chief, said the conference was held near the end of the fiscal year when there was leftover money.

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