WASHINGTON — If you are a federal worker on furlough this week — or an airline passenger delayed by federal furloughs — you might save your blood pressure, and go read another story.
This one is about all the money the U.S. government spends on . . . nothing.
It is one of the oddest spending habits in Washington: this year, the government will spend at least $890,000 on service fees for bank accounts that have nothing in them. At last count, Uncle Sam has 13,712 such accounts, each containing zero dollars and zero cents.
These are supposed to be closed. But nobody has done the paperwork.
So even now — as the "sequester" budget cuts have begun idling workers and frustrating travelers — the government is still required to pay $65, per year, per account, to keep these empty accounts on the books.
In this time of austerity, these accounts are a reminder of something that makes austerity hard: expensive habits, built into the bureaucracy in times of plenty. The Obama administration has spent the last year trying to close these accounts, with some success.
But only some.
"If anyone had kept open a bank account with no money, and was getting a charge every month, they would do everything they could to close it," said Thomas A. Schatz, of the watchdog group Citizens Against Government Waste. But, Schatz said, the government hasn't shown the same kind of urgency with taxpayers money.
"It's just lack of attention to detail. And poor management," he said. "And, clearly, the fact that no one gets penalized for paying money to keep the accounts open."
The money spent on these empty accounts is — of course — a tiny fraction of the federal budget. But, in its own way, it is something special: Washington's perfect waste, a rare specimen of cost untainted by any reward.
The Pentagon once paid $435 for a hammer, after all. But at least, in that case, it got a hammer.
Here, when the money is spent, "there's no benefit whatsoever," said Sen. Tom Coburn, R-Okla., who has joined Sen. Thomas Carper, D-Del., in pushing the Obama administration to close these accounts faster.
Inside the Obama administration, officials said they're trying. Last year, the Office of Management and Budget urged agencies to crack down on these "zero balance" accounts. And this year, it proposed a wide-scale effort to improve the oversight of such accounts.
"We have worked with agencies to improve the timely closeout of grants," said Danny Werfel, the Controller at the Office of Management and Budget, in an emailed statement. "Agencies have made noteworthy progress so far, with the number of zero balance accounts falling by more than 50 percent since the end of fiscal year 2011." Back then, the total was over 28,000.
Here is how the government winds up spending money on nothing:
First, a federal agency gives out a grant. It doesn't just write a check; it creates an account within a large government-run depository. The grantee can draw money out from there.