The Anti-Deficiency Act: What You Need to Know

Often times, Congress limits funds only for certain purposes for a certain period of time. Federal agencies are under an obligation to spend their funds according only to these congressional mandates.

While some people think there’s little accountability for federal spending, it happens to be taken very seriously, especially in the military. Under our system of government, Congress is responsible for appropriating funds for executive agencies, including directions for how, when, and where such funds can be spent. 

That’s where the Anti-Deficiency Act (ADA) comes into play. The ADA establishes civil and criminal penalties for federal employees who fail to comply with laws appropriating and authorizing the use of federal funds. Specifically, the ADA prohibits federal employees from spending money:

  • For a purpose different from that authorized by Congress
  • At a time when such funds are not authorized by Congress
  • In excess of the amount authorized by Congress

While this may seem like more of an accounting game for someone else to worry about, there are serious consequences even for what appear to be small violations of the ADA. In 2011, for example, two service members received letters of reprimand after spending up to $12,000 for items such as bottled water, a water dispenser, and paper goods because the funds for such purchases were not available at the time.

Read on to learn more about the Anti-Deficiency Act and how it can impact your military career.

How Can the ADA Affect You?

As you advance in your military career, you'll likely find yourself in a leadership position, perhaps even in a staff or staff support position where you have some responsibility over a unit's budget or expenditures. At one time or another, you're going to see what keeps the military going even more than fuel or MREs - funding.

There are 5 major pots of money available to the military through congressional appropriations:

  1. Military Personnel (MILPER): This covers such things as pay, allowances, subsistence, and travel.
  2. Operations and Maintenance (O&M): This is a broader category of funding and can be used to support operations (for example, purchasing ammunition) and to maintain equipment.
  3. Research, Development, Test and Evaluation (RDT&E): This covers scientific research and development performed by the military branches.
  4. Procurement: This typically covers purchases of investment items with a long life-span, like Abrams tanks or F-22 Raptors.
  5. Military Construction (MILCON): This normally covers the acquisition, construction or installation of facilities.

Congress will typically appropriate money from the federal budget into these main categories, although other categories and funding also exist.

If you've been tasked as the OIC or NCOIC for an upcoming training event, you'll want to make sure your unit has enough of the right kind of money to pay for what you need, whether it be money for billeting, subsistence or equipment. Typically this would come from the MILPER or O&M pots, but before any money is spent, you should consult with your unit's finance officer or legal advisor. After all, if you purchase MREs with money set aside for construction projects, that will most likely constitute an ADA violation.

ADA Investigations and Penalties

Let's say that you accidentally spent last year's O&M money to support a training operation this year. If that money was only appropriated for last year, this could constitute an ADA violation because only current money can be used for current year needs. Even though you may have been swamped at the time and only inadvertently made the mistake, this is no defense as good faith or mistake of fact will not relieve you from liability for an ADA violation. This is all the more reason to speak with a finance officer or legal advisor before you spend any funds.

Upon discovery of an ADA violation, a formal investigation will take place. If it determines that an ADA violation took place, your military branch is required to report it along with all ADA violations (regardless of dollar amount) to:

  • The President
  • Congress
  • Comptroller General
  • Office of Management and Budget

In addition, the Government Accountability Office (GAO) publishes summary reports of ADA violations online. Depending on the circumstances and nature of the violation, you may receive an adverse administrative action such as non-judicial punishment, or you may face prosecution in a court-martial. A knowing and willful violation of the ADA is considered a Class E Felony subject to a $5,000 fine, 2 years imprisonment, or both.

However, if you find yourself in this situation, it may not be all doom and gloom and you may be able to avoid having the President learn your name from the GAO. For example, there are ways to correct ADA violations after the fact, so long as proper funds were available at the time of the violation and at the time of the correction.

Additional Resources

If you're interested in learning more about the Anti-Deficiency Act and your legal liabilities, you should speak with a military attorney or a civilian attorney who specializes in military law especially because congressional appropriations and authorizations frequently change.

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