Then, at some point, it's over. The money runs out. Or the grant's time limit expires. The agency is given notice: it's time to close the account down.
But that takes work. An agency is first required to audit the account, to make sure the money was spent properly (in rare cases, some money is returned to the grantee, and the dead account comes alive again). That's generally supposed to happen within 180 days.
If it doesn't happen, however, there isn't any formal consequence.
And so — sometimes — it doesn't happen.
Right now, about 7 percent of the 202,000 total government grant accounts are devoid of money. These sit on the books, costing about $5.42 per month. The service fees are the same, whether an account is full or empty.
Last year, the Government Accountability Office found that all this that nothing was costing about $2.1 million a year.
The GAO reported the obvious: this was not a great idea.
"Agencies paying fees for expired accounts with zero dollar balance are paying for services that are not needed," the watchdog agency noted, without irony.
Around Washington, there are plenty of problems like this one: old bugs, built into the machine of government, that make spending money seem easier than saving it. Things like the red tape that delays the sale of excess government buildings. Or the long-standing tolerance of duplication. Right now, for instance, that six different government agencies have already launched separate projects to do the same thing: build a computer program to track personnel background checks.
Last summer, the Obama administration sought to fix this particular bug. It sent a memo to agencies: "Focus first on closing out expired grants that are several years past their end dates or have no remaining funds."
In some places, it apparently didn't work. The Agency for International Development has the same amount of empty accounts now that it did in 2011. The Federal Emergency Management Agency and the Fish and Wildlife Service didn't provide new numbers at all, despite a request from the Washington Post.
But in other places, it did work. The Department of Agriculture eliminated 74 percent of its empty accounts, saving itself $90,000 per year. The National Park Service managed to close all 705 empty accounts, and get its total down to zero.
There was also success at the Department of Health and Human Services. It had previously been paying for 21,000 empty accounts. Now, the total is down to 9,286: a major cut, but still an expense of $604,000 per year.
Could the agency get that number lower?
Officials answered the question this way: they could never imagine getting it to zero. The government would always have to spend something on nothing.
"We will continue our efforts to accelerate grant closeouts," said Nancy Gunderson, an official who oversees grants at Health and Human Services. "These accounts are a normal part of the grants business cycle and will never be totally eliminated."