DataLab, a unit operated by the U.S. Treasury Department, recently undertook an analysis of ten years of federal contract spending data. The results are thought-provoking.
Take a look at what they discovered when they examined the USAspending.gov database:
- Over the past decade, federal spending on contracts increased from fiscal year 2007 through 2010, following the surge in federal funding related to the Recovery Act. As the Recovery Act tapered off in 2011, contract spending began to decrease, which accelerated following sequestration in 2013. By 2015, contract spending had fallen 27 percent from its 2010 peak, before rebounding slightly in the following years.
- Seasonal trends in contract spending occur within each year. Spending tends also rise and fall on a monthly cadence, with roughly one small peak and one small drop per month. During the last month of the federal fiscal year — September — contract spending spikes, especially one week prior to the end of the government’s fiscal year.
- End-of-year spikes consistently occurred across the decade, and generally followed the broad rise and fall of spending. On average, September spikes accounted for between 6-8 percent of the annual spending in a fiscal year.
- USAspending.gov data captures two types of activity related to contracts: 1) the issuance of new contracts, and 2) modifications to existing contracts. Splitting spending on contracts into these two categories, DataLab found that spending on new contracts tended to spike in September. Modifications, however, displayed less variance and did not spike as drastically at the end of each fiscal year. This suggests that new contracts — not modifications—drove the spikes at the end of each fiscal year.
- USAspending data also captures what the government received from a contract (i.e., goods or services.) This categorization scheme, utilizing Product and Service Codes, contains almost 6,000 different categories, ranging from Dining Facility Maintenance to Buoys. For this analysis, DataLab collapsed these 6,000 categories into seven high-level groups. Notably, contracts classified as Facilities, Equipment, and Construction, displayed about 3.5 times the level of variance over the decade as total contract spending, and over 50 times the variance of spending on Weapons and Ammunition. Unlike the other categories, contracts for weapons ammunition did not spike at the end of the fiscal year.
DataLab also looked at USAspending data to determine the relationship between the passage of continuing resolutions, new appropriations, and the amount of spending on contracts across the government. Here’s what they found:
- Continuing resolutions caused contract spending to spike in the same week, which was not observed for the passage of new appropriations. These findings cohere with qualitative research conducted by the Government Accountability Office (GAO), which noted in February 2018 that “some agency officials reported delaying contracts and application times for grants while under a [continuing resolution].” If agencies are unable to issue new contracts because adequate funds are not available under continuing resolutions, needs accumulate, and then are satisfied once funding is available.
- Notably, DataLab found that the passage of new appropriations resulted in a statistically significant decreases in total contracts and especially on professional services contract spending. This suggests that new appropriations allow the government to engage in longer-term budgeting, potentially facilitating forward-looking spending decisions.
- DataLab also noted that research and development spending was less variable and less impacted by continuing resolutions, suggesting that this type of service is likely to follow a distinct pattern for contract issuance from the typical cycles followed by other goods and services. As one of the smallest categories of spending, it is possible that this type of contract is partially sheltered from the timing of congressional appropriations.
- Other categories showed evidence of very large spikes in spending in response to congressional appropriations, such as transportation and logistic services. Further research as to why specific types of spending are more reactive to continuing resolutions would need to be done to explain why.
To see this report, including trends displayed in graphs and tables, visit: https://datalab.usaspending.gov/contracts-over-time.html