GAO has said that at least two departments, Interior and Agriculture, violated law and policies by continuing to provide certain services funded by appropriations that had lapsed during the partial government shutdown that lasted about a month until ending in early January this year.
GAO produced legal opinions at the request of some members of Congress following actions that were interpreted from different political directions either as good-faith efforts to continue providing services to the public or as maneuvers to downplay the seriousness of shutting down large parts of the government.
GAO said that Agriculture did not have authority to pay ahead of schedule the February benefits under the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program. Funding authority that lapsed in late December authorized the January payments but “the February benefits did not fall within this timeframe. In addition, USDA had no basis to alter its pattern of obligations so that it could pay the February benefits earlier.”
“USDA did not identify, nor are we aware of, an Antideficiency Act exception on which USDA could have relied. In the event that USDA did not have sufficient budget authority or a proper exception to the Antideficiency Act, USDA should report an Antideficiency Act violation as required by law,” it said. That law prohibits obligations or expenditures in excess or in advance of available appropriations.
It reached the same conclusion and made the same recommendation regarding Interior’s use of recreation fees for purposes such as trash collection and maintenance of restrooms and sanitation at national park sites that remained accessible to visitors during the shutdown. Those fees are to be used for “repair, maintenance, and facility enhancement related directly to visitor enjoyment, visitor access, and health and safety,” the GAO said, and “in this context, maintenance and facility enhancement does not include the provision of basic, day-to-day custodial services like cleaning restrooms and taking out the trash.”
The two departments have said in response that they disagree with GAO’s interpretation.