The concept of Federal appropriations law is framed by three major fiscal limitations; purpose, time and amount. A Government agency may obligate and expend appropriations only for a proper purpose. The expenditures must be made within the time limits applicable to the appropriations (that's why there is always a push to spend funds at year-end). And an agency may not obligate more than the amount appropriated by Congress. The Anti-Deficiency Act generally addresses the "amount" limitation. In short, agencies may not;
- obligate more funds than are made available to them in an appropriation or in a form subdivision of funds (allocation, allotment, sub-allotment, or other formal designation of a limitation)
- make obligations that exceed the amount permitted by agency actions/regulations
- obligate funds in advance of receiving an appropriation or allotment.
Violations of the Anti-Deficiency Act are taken seriously. Unintentional violations can result in reassignment or suspension without pay. Intentional violations can result in a fine and imprisonment. Responsibility for Anti-Deficiency Act violations is usually fixed at the highest level that know about or should have known about the violation.
Examples of ADA violations include:
- Actions, including clerical recordings or reporting errors, which result in an over-commitment, over-obligation, or over-expenditure of funds in any appropriation.
- An official involves the Government in a contract or obligation either in advance of appropriations or without adequate funding authority.
- Attempts to avoid an over-obligation or over-expenditure
- by failure to post to accounting records,
- by delay in posting until funds are received;
- by not properly charging he appropriated fund or by transferring charges or funds between accounts
Agencies that violate the Anti-Deficiency Act must report to the President, Congress, and the GAO all relevant facts and a statement of actions taken. In Fiscal Year 2016, there were about 15 such reports submitted to the GAO (see Anti-deficiency Act Reports - Fiscal Year 2016).
Interestingly enough, the Anti-Deficiency Act also prohibits federal employees from accepting voluntary services for the United States. We doubt this would ever be a problem and we haven't seen reported violations of this prohibition in any of the GAO summaries.