Though the government shutdown is over — for now — it reminds me of an episode in my own short career as a federal official. It’s a story of the Antideficiency Act — relevant because some asked whether federal agencies violated the law by staying open during the shutdown.
The law goes back to 1870, when Congress was grumpy over presidential spending for the Civil War. A federal official who spends money in excess of an appropriation could go to prison.
I am guilty of violating that law, or so I was told. But Congress and the White House drove me to it.
Back in the fall of 2014, I was running the federal office in charge of helping an Alaska North Slope natural gas pipeline project. But like so many other years, Congress failed to pass a budget by the start of the fiscal year on Oct. 1, 2014. Federal agencies were operating under a series of continuing resolutions, which say do what you’re doing as if you have the same budget as last year until Congress can pass a real budget.
The White House Office of Management and Budget and the General Services Administration, which kept our books, told us to do just that: Operate the same as the past year.
Then, in January 2015, the budget office called in a panic. Turns out, they said, they were wrong. The gas line office should have closed on Oct. 1, 2014. The continuing resolution did not really apply to our office because months earlier the House had approved a lone budget bill without funding for the office. Although the Senate never acted on the bill — which meant it was not law — the budget office was following the House direction.
It was all in Bulletin 14, she said. Hadn’t I read it, she asked. I never even knew there were Bulletins 1 through 13, so why would I read No. 14.
She told me to close the agency immediately and return all the money. Yeah, that’s about as likely as the gas line getting built. We had paid the rent, salaries and other expenses for the first three months of the fiscal year, just as we were told. The money was spent.
The budget office told me to shut down the agency as quickly as orderly possible. Which we did.
Then, while packing, I got another call from the budget office, informing me that I had violated the ADA. I told the auditor the office was compliant with all access laws for people with disabilities. She said no, not that ADA, the Antideficiency Act.
She told me I needed to send a letter to the president, the treasury secretary, the House speaker and Senate president, confessing to my crime. But get this, lawyers for the budget office and General Services Administration (the agencies that had told me to spend the money), were going to draft my confession — and I was not allowed to attend the meeting.
It took the lawyers weeks to group-edit the letter, but about 30 minutes before we were closing the doors on the last day of the agency’s existence, the letter arrived in my inbox. I was asked to sign. So, I signed. I figured who cares, no one would ever read it, I had done nothing wrong, and I was tired of arguing.
Now, the best part. I returned the signed letter to the budget office for distribution. But the lawyers later decided they could not submit the letter to the president or anyone else. They said only I could put the letter in the mail but because I was no longer a federal employee, I had no legal standing to confess to the crime. (I never said this story made sense.)
The letter sat in the budget office file for almost two years. Then, in January 2017, they were cleaning up the files and getting ready for the new administration to take over. Someone found my letter, came up with new legal advice, and sent the letter to the president and everyone else on the distribution list. They emailed to tell me. Maybe they thought I would want to flee the country.
I doubt anyone ever read the letter. Well, maybe Russian President Vladimir Putin read it, but I can’t prove it.
The FBI never called me. No special prosecutor subpoenaed the checkbook. Neither MSNBC nor FOX News asked me why I was a self-admitted deficient.
The point of this story? Maybe the U.S. Senate and President Donald Trump should be required to sign their own letter for the government shutdown. Clearly, they were deficient in doing their job. I’ll even help them write it.
Larry Persily is a longtime Alaska journalist, with breaks for federal, state and municipal jobs in oil and gas and taxes.