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Federal Budget: A Few Agencies and Program-Specific Factors Explain Most Unused Funds

GAO-21-432 Published: May 25, 2021. Publicly Released: May 25, 2021.
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Fast Facts

When federal agencies don't spend the funds Congress appropriates to them within the allotted time, the funds are cancelled. We found that 4 agencies were responsible for most of these cancellations between fiscal years 2009-2019: the departments of Defense, Agriculture, Health and Human Services, and the Treasury.

Most cancellations were due to:

Actual program needs being less than estimated

Agencies not having authority to redirect funds

Unpredictable program costs

Some agencies have taken steps to reduce these cancellations—which may result in more accurate budget estimates and better service to the public.

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What GAO Found

About 1.6 percent of the total available budget authority government-wide was cancelled from fiscal year 2009 to fiscal year 2019, averaging $23.9 billion per year. The variations in cancelled appropriations from year to year can be explained largely by trends in four departments. Together they represent 86 percent of the total government-wide cancelled appropriations, but their rate of cancellations were within a few percentage points of the government-wide rate.

Four Agencies Represent the Majority of Total Cancellations from FY2009–FY2019

Four Agencies Represent the Majority of Total Cancellations from FY2009–FY2019

Cancelled appropriations for the six case study accounts GAO reviewed largely resulted from program-specific factors:

  • Actual program needs were less than estimated. For example, actual versus projected troop levels and warfront movements can contribute to cancelled appropriations at the Department of Defense (DOD).
  • Some program funds are only for specific purposes. For example, Department of Health and Human Services (HHS), Administration for Children and Families officials reported that some states declined funding for a teen sex and pregnancy prevention program, and the agency did not have the authority to redirect those funds for other purposes.
  • Some programs' costs are more unpredictable than others. Contract and acquisition costs can be unpredictable . When final costs are less than originally estimated, agencies may have to cancel the difference. In contrast, agencies with a higher proportion of personnel expenses, which are relatively predictable, can more easily avoid cancelled appropriations.

All of GAO's case study agencies have procedures in place to help limit discretionary cancelled appropriations. For example, the Army established a program that helps reduce cancelled appropriations by providing management with metrics and tools to help prevent them.

Why GAO Did This Study

Laws limit the time that agencies have available to use fixed-term appropriations for obligations and expenditures. However, agencies do not always obligate and outlay these funds in time, which ultimately results in cancelled appropriations. Efforts to limit the amount of cancelled appropriations result in more accurate budget estimation and fiscal projections, a more efficient appropriations process, and better service to the public.

The National Defense Authorization Act for Fiscal Year 2020 includes a provision for GAO to review the status of cancelled appropriations. This report addresses (1) the extent of appropriations that were cancelled in fiscal years 2009 through 2019 and how the rate of cancelled appropriations and other characteristics differ across agencies, (2) factors that contribute to the level of cancelled appropriations in selected accounts at agencies, and (3) efforts selected agencies make to prevent the cancellation of funds.

To provide government-wide trends, GAO analyzed Department of the Treasury and Office of Management and Budget data. GAO also analyzed related documents from six case study accounts at DOD, HHS, and the U.S. Department of Agriculture; and interviewed officials at these agencies. The selected accounts included the three with the most cancelled appropriations government-wide and three additional accounts to represent the major categories of federal spending: personnel, acquisitions, grants, and contracts.

For more information, contact Jeff Arkin at (202) 512-6806 or

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